Breast Cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in the UK. The numbers affected have risen by 80% in the past 30 years and it is believed that 90% of cases are caused by lifestyle. Five percent of cases are due to genetic factors.
Although breast lumps are quite common, only 10% of them are found to be cancerous. The remainder are usually fluid-filled cysts that mainly affect women in their 40s and 50s, or fibroadenomas which are caused by an over-development of fibrous tissue in women under 30. Neither of these are serious and are easily treated.
Every womans’ breasts are different so it is sensible to be aware of what is normal for each individual. It is recommended that all women over 20 should examine their breasts at the same time every month to notice any changes as early as possible. Early detection of a cancerous lump can make a big difference in the treatment, as radical procedures like mastectomy (removal of the breast), radiotherapy and chemotherapy may not always be necessary.
To examine your breasts, you should:
1) Take a look in the mirror with your hands by your side, then raise them above your head looking for unusual dimpling or puckering of the skin.
2) Notice the shape of each breast and see if there is any difference in size or any change in the nipples eg. bleeding, discharge or inversion of the nipple.
3) Lay on a bed or in the bath, and run wet, soapy fingers over your breast and under your armpit. Breasts are naturally lumpy, so by checking regularly, you will be able to spot anything new.
Many women find self examination quite difficult or even intimidating which means that they do not check their breasts regularly. However, a new medical device is helping to change that. Called the Breast Chek, it consists of a layer of oil between two sheets of polyurethane. When placed over each breast, any lump that may be present is magnified and detected much earlier than normal. (see www.pinkhealth.net)
In the UK, a screening program for breast cancer is offered to all women between 50 and 70. This includes three-yearly mammograms, a special type of x-ray that can detect abnormal lumps. This can be quite uncomfortable, even painful to some, so not all women take up the offer. There have also been some concerns about the regular exposure to radiation from mammograms and the potential trauma caused by breast compression.
Another method, which is totally painless and risk-free, is thermography (thermal imaging). This has been proven to detect cancer risk as early as 6 to 10 years before a lump may be felt. As a tumor starts to develop, it requires a good blood supply which raises the temperature in that area and this is detected through thermal imaging. Studies have shown that 91% of non-palpable lumps can be detected with thermography, which is higher than with a mammogram. Currently, only a few private clinics in the UK offer thermal imaging.
Although women are mostly affected by breast cancer, an increasing number of men are being diagnosed at a rate of around 300 a year. So, anyone who finds an abnormal lump or change in the breasts, should consult a doctor as soon as possible.