Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer diagnosed in females. Jennifer Paterson delves into a disease which affects up to 1 in 11 women during their life.
A devastating diagnosis
Many women regard their breasts as an extremely important asset. In addition to being one of the primary physical characteristics that separate us from the male of the species, they are also a potential source of nourishment and comfort.
It comes as no surprise then, that a breast cancer diagnosis is always an extremely traumatic experience in a woman's life. The disease has received an enormous amount of attention over the past two decades, much research directed into establishing both causal and preventative factors, and a potential 'cure'.
Demographic: Women of higher socio-economic backgrounds are at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Possible reasons for this include lifestyle factors (stress, diet), reproductive factors (having children later in life), and the fact that higher educated women are more likely to have their breasts screened regularly.
Age:Age is the most important risk factor for breast cancer, incidence increasing with age.
Medical history: Women diagnosed with benign forms of breast disease (such as non malignant lumps) are more likely to subsequently develop breast cancer.
Hormonal Factors :Early onset of menstruation, late menopause and having children later in life also increases the likelihood of breast cancer.
Family history :The risk of breast cancer is doubled among women with a first-degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40 years.
Genetic factors: Between five and ten percent of breast cancers diagnosed in women under the age of 45 can be directly attributed to inherited characteristics.
Breast cancer screening
Mammography is currently the most effective means of early breast cancer detection available. While breast screening will not prevent cancer, or detect all cancers of the breast, early detection allows greater chance of successful treatment. The National Program for Early Detection of Cancer provides funding to each state for women over 50 to have their breasts screened for free every 2 years.
What is the process like?
A mammogram is somewhat comparable to having a picture taken of your breast. Each breast is positioned carefully on a screening machine, a radiographer taking the mammogram. The process can be a little uncomfortable, but should not cause great distress as each 'picture' generally only takes a few seconds to process.
Does it always pick up breast cancer?
Breast screening picks up most, but not all, cancers. It is essential to examine your breasts regularly, consulting your GP if you notice any irregularities. While a lump in your breast can be a sign of cancerous growth, it is not always the case.
Sally Graham was 45 when she first noticed an area of thickening in her breast. "It wasn't a lump as such, more like a thickening in my breast, which didn't bounce back when I pressed it." Sally went to see her GP, who thought that the thickening might be fibrous tissue. "He suggested a mammogram more for my piece of mind than anything."
Sally's mammogram and a subsequent ultrasound supported this conclusion but her GP referred her to a specialist at the NSW Breast Cancer Institute. The specialist conducted a fine needle biopsy, which confirmed the presence of cancerous cells, which although in their early stages, had spread quite rapidly through her breast. "It was awful, here I was being told that I was fine, only to discover that I had rapidly progressing cancer."
Unfortunately Sally's cancer had progressed to such a stage that a radical mastectomy was the only option available. In addition to this, cancerous cells were discovered in her lymph nodes under one arm, and they had to be removed as well. This disruption to her lymphatic system (and its role in fighting disease) means that Sally must be extremely careful not to burn that arm.
Sally has been cancer free for five years, and has yearly mammograms as a precautionary measure. "I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, but I consider myself lucky to be alive." National Breast Cancer Day
October 23rd is Australia's Breast Cancer day. The event is sponsored by The National Breast Cancer Foundation.