Most of you will know that I am passionate about raising awareness around Breast Cancer and while October is traditionally Breast Cancer Awareness Month, given that this cancer is the most commonly diagnosed disease among South African women it feels fitting to talk about it in Women’s Month too.
Breast Cancer is not an ‘older women’ disease
I speak from experience here…. There was perhaps a time when younger women thought that Breast Cancer was something you only worried about in your later years, but this can be a dangerous misconception. Women of all ages, demographics and backgrounds are being diagnosed – the cancer does not discriminate. Two of my closest and oldest friends had their breast cancer diagnosis before the age of 38.
Being diagnosed so young can raise all sorts of concerns. Of course, there is a big worry around the immediate and long-term side-effects of treatment which is totally understandable.
So much happens in a woman’s life during their 20’s and 30’s – one can go from a recent graduate to starting a career to becoming a mother, businesswomen and head of household in those few years. It’s a busy and exciting time for women where the possibilities seem endless, so being diagnosed with Breast Cancer during these years can be a harrowing experience.
The good news is that Breast Cancer is very curable. The bad news is that the sort of medical intervention needed carries side-effects that will impact fertility, pregnancy, premature menopause, body image and, more than likely careers and home lives (depending on the support systems available).
The Importance of Breast Self-Examinations
I know that many of you reading this will have questions so I chatted to Dr. Justus Apffelstaedt, a renowned breast cancer surgeon in Cape Town, to answer some of the important ones.
- How can we monitor ourselves to detect breast cancer early?
Women between the ages of 20 and 39 years old should conduct a breast self-examination on a monthly basis. It is strongly advised that women in this age range should have a clinical breast examination by a healthcare professional every three years, even if they feel they are not at risk.
- How do you conduct a breast self-examination?
- What should we look out for?
If you find a lump during a self-examination, it’s important that the lump be fully investigated via a clinical examination and imaging by a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
- If diagnosed, will my doctor assess my concerns about treatment and side-effects?
In South Africa, healthcare professionals are obliged to explain treatments and side-effects with patients and respond to any queries or concerns. Many will also recommend support groups if necessary, however this may depend on which facility or practice one goes to. It is best to go with a list of prepared questions for the healthcare provider, such as:
- What treatment options would you recommend for my specific case?
- What are the side-effects and implications and how long will they last?
- Will this affect my fertility if I would still like to have children?
- Who can you recommend I speak to for counselling during this period?
- What should I tell my family?
- What can we do to reduce risk and stay ahead of breast cancer?
The easiest way to lower one’s risk of developing breast cancer is to live a healthier lifestyle.
To reduce your risk:
- Be aware of your personal breast cancer risk which considers factors such as genetics, diagnoses in the family and lifestyle.
- Watch your diet and exercise regularly.
- Watch your weight. Obesity increases one’s breast cancer risk by up to 70% in pre-menopausal women (American Association for Cancer Research, 2012).
- Reduce your alcohol intake. Habitual drinking can also increase your risk. Alcoholics in particular have a far higher risk of developing breast cancer than non-drinkers (National Cancer Institute).
If you are interested here is a worthwhile organisation to support that is doing great work in the breast cancer space read on below for more information about Reach for Recovery.
Reach for Recovery, the all-female NPO, is one of South Africa’s oldest breast cancer support organisations. Since 2011, through their national Ditto Project, they have provided over 5000 indigent women, who have undergone mastectomies, with silicone breast prostheses. Reach for Recovery hopes that all South African women can have access to the tools that they need to live a normal, healthy post-operative life.
It’s important that we rally together to keep these organisations front of mind throughout the year so that women who need their services become aware of them.
Plus, they are doing such great work that we should celebrate them and the difference they are making in countless lives.
If you’d like to donate to Reach for Recovery and help more breast cancer survivors get breast prostheses, click here (please use Becoming You as your reference).