Breast cancer - are you at risk?

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How common is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in South African women – approximately 1 in every 33 women will develop the condition in their lifetime. Breast cancer risk is not the same across all racial groups – Asian and Caucasian women have the highest risk, followed by Coloured females. Black women have the lowest risk, although it is still significant and should not be ignored.

What would increase my risk of breast cancer?

The following are some of the risk factors for breast cancer:

  1. Age – The majority of breast cancers develop in women between 40 and 69 years of age
  2. Lifestyle habits – This includes a lack of physical exercise, smoking, drinking excessive alcohol and being overweight
  3. Ethnicity – Individuals of Afrikaner or Ashkenazi Jewish descent have a higher risk through the so called “Founder Effect”
  4. Genetic mutations and family history – About 5-10 % of breast cancers are due to mutations inherited from the previous generation. Individuals with these mutations have an extremely high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer within their lifetime. A history of breast cancer in close relatives may also significantly increase your risk
  5. Hormonal factors – When you began menstruating, your history of pregnancies, breastfeeding and use of hormonal therapies may increase your risk

How would I know if I have breast cancer?

Breast cancer, in its early stages, can produce no signs or symptoms to bely its presence. This is why screening for breast cancer remains an essential activity. However, the following may be suggestive of underlying cancer in the breast:

  • A lump in the breast or armpit
  • Changes to the nipple, including becoming inverted or changing shape or the development of a rash or inflammation
  • A change in the skin of the breast, including dimpling or resembling the texture of an orange peel
  • A recent change in the size or shape of a breast, particular if only on one side
  • Blood stained discharge from the nipple

If you have noticed any of these features, it is important to urgently seek medical attention for further investigation.

How do I screen for breast cancer?

There are 3 forms of screening, with mammography being the most important.

  1. Mammography – A mammogram is an x-ray of your breast, which can help detect small lumps which you and the doctor may miss despite physical examination. Generally, women should consider annual mammogram screening from the age of 40 yrs. There may be exceptions to this and you should meet with your doctor to determine at what age and frequency you should be receiving screening.
  2. Breast self-examination – this involves you examining your own breasts for changes on a monthly basis. This will help empower you and remind you of the importance of breast health
  3. Doctor breast examination – you may want to consider requesting your doctor to examine your breasts as well

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I am worried that breast cancer runs in my family, what can I do?

Remember that only 5-10% of breast cancers are related to genetic mutations. The first step in determining whether you may have such a mutation in the family is to review the following questions. If you answer yes to one or more, you should perhaps talk to a Genetic Counsellor or your Doctor to explore your history and risk factors for breast cancer in more depth.

  • Breast cancer diagnosed before 50 yrs of age
  • Ovarian cancer diagnosed at any age
  • Both breast and ovarian cancer in the same person
  • Breast cancer occurring in both breasts or arising in multiple areas within a breast/the breasts
  • A family history of male breast cancer
  • The presence of a such a mutation in the family (known through testing)
  • Being of Afrikaner or Ashkenazi Jewish origin

If your healthcare professional believes that there is a significant chance of a mutation being present in your family, they may recommend a genetic screening test to look for these changes and help determine your future risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Intercare Salubrity, through their partnership with Swiss-based biotechnology company Genoma, offers advanced genetic testing services for the detection of these mutations. For a limited time only, all Edgar’s Club members performing the test through Intercare Salubrity will receive a R500/5% discount (TBC)  on the cost of the test.

Source: Dr Cameron Meyer, Head Intercare Salubrity

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