Amid the coronavirus pandemic, let us not forget to observe breast cancer awareness month this October.
The annual breast cancer awareness celebration aims to raise awareness about breast cancer screening, as well as funds for patients under treatment.
According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women worldwide, both in developed and developing countries. In low and middle-income countries, the incidence has been rising steadily in the last years due to the increase in life expectancy, increased urbanization and adoption of western lifestyles.
Among Asian countries, the Philippines has the number one recorded incidence and mortality rate in breast cancer. It is also the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the country, mostly between the ages of 35 and 54. Moreover, more than a million developed the disease without knowing it, and nearly 500,000 women die from it every year.
Approximately 70 percent of breast cancers occur in women with undetermined risk factors, and about five percent of breast cancers are hereditary. In the past, the risk of breast cancer was 1 in 22. Today, it is already 1 in 8 cases (Argenal, 2019). With the alarming figures at hand, both the government and private institutions vowed to help fight off the disease.
Continue reading below to know the basic facts about the deadly disease.
What is breast cancer?
It is a group of diseases in which cells in breast tissue change and divide uncontrolled, typically resulting in a lump or mass (American Cancer Society, 2019). Most cases begin in the lobules (milk glands) or in the ducts that connect the lobules to the nipples.
Telltale signs & symptoms of breast cancer
Usually, breast cancer has no symptoms when the tumour is small, which is why screening is essential for early detection and treatment. Nevertheless, the most common physical sign is a painless lump.
Sometimes breast cancer spreads to underarm lymph nodes and causes a lump or swelling, even before the original breast tumour is large enough to be felt.
Other less common symptoms include breast pain or heaviness; persistent changes, such as swelling, thickening, or redness of the skin; and nipple changes, such as spontaneous discharge, scaliness, or retraction.
As soon as persistent changes have been observed, it is best to seek medical evaluation by a physician.
Cause and diagnosis
No one exactly knows yet what causes the development of breast cancer. In fact, most women diagnosed with the disease will never be able to determine an exact cause.
What doctors know, however, is that breast cancer is always caused by damage to a cell’s DNA.
While breast cancer sadly can’t usually be prevented, there are certain established risk factors that are associated with breast cancer, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc: a family history of breast cancer, early menstruation before age 12, and late menopause after age 55. Other risk factors include environmental (such as radiation to the chest) and lifestyle (such as poor diet and lack of physical activity).
It is important to note, however, that having a risk factor does not mean that a woman will have breast cancer. Many women who have risk factors never develop the disease. Meanwhile, around 60-70% of people with breast cancer have no connection to these risk factors at all.
Commonly, breast cancer can be detected through either early screening (before symptoms have developed) or after a lump has been detected. Most lumps detected on a mammogram, however, usually turn out to be benign (not cancerous).
When cancer is suspected, on the other hand, tissue for microscopic analysis is usually obtained from a needle biopsy and less often from a surgical biopsy. The selection of the type of biopsy is based on multiple factors, including the size and location of the lump (American Cancer Society, 2019). It also varies on patient factors and preferences and resources.
Since the disease cannot be prevented, detecting it early is very important. Listed below are the three steps you can do to help increase your chance of detecting breast cancer early, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.
A. Breast self-awareness
Through breast self-awareness, it can help you become familiar with how your breast normally looks and feels. Any changes will then help you identify and report to your healthcare professional promptly.
Changes you might want to look for include: a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area; a change in the size or shape; dimpling or puckering in the skin of the breast; a nipple turned inward into the breast; discharges (fluid) from the nipple; and scaly, red, or swollen on the breast, nipple, or areola (the dark area of skin at the center of the breast).
It is important to note though that often these symptoms are not due to cancer. But if you notice any changes in your body, it is best to immediately tell your doctor.
B. Well-woman exam
If possible, visit your family doctor or gynecologist each year for a Well-woman Exam. Besides the breast exam, the Well-woman Exam will also include a routine pelvic and pap smear checkup. The physical examination will also serve as an opportunity for you to discuss with your doctor any concerns you may have regarding your breast health.
While breast cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms in its early stages, experts would recommend that women ages 40 and above get a mammogram, an X-ray of the breast, every year. It is a safe way to detect cancerous tumours and other abnormal breast conditions. Moreover, women who have screening mammograms have a lower chance of succumbing from the disease compared to women who do not.
Mammograms can detect cancer or other problems in its early stages before a lump becomes large enough to be detected by touch and when treatment is usually the most successful. It is also considered safe, quick, and relatively painless.
In an interview with Manila Bulletin, Dr. Ellie May Villegas, a medical oncologist and past president of the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology, reminded the public to remain vigilant and not to be paralyzed the fear of Covid-19.
“Remember the other C, cancer. If you need to see a doctor, we are flexible. We understand your fears, we can start with a teleconsultation or telemedicine. But you need to check yourself and if you find anything that needs a second look, get yourself checked,” Dr. Villegas said.
- American Cancer Society. Available at www.cancer.org. Accessed October 20, 2020
- GLOBOCAN. 2018. Available at: www.uicc.org. Accessed October 20, 2020
- National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Available at www.nationalbreastcancer.org. Accessed October 21, 2020
- Pfizer. The burden of cancer in Asia; 2008. Available at: www.pfizer.com. Accessed October 20, 2020
- Rene N. Argenal et al., Available at www.psa.gov.ph. Accessed October 20, 2020
- World Health Organization. Available at www.who.int. Accessed October 20, 2020