October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a worldwide annual campaign involving thousands of charities and organisations to highlight the importance of breast cancer awareness, education and research. During the month everyone is encouraged to share educational content on social media (breast health awareness guides, infographics, memes), arrange fundraisers and donate.
Early detection, education and support are essential in helping those affected by breast cancer. If women regularly check their breasts for any signs of abnormalities, it means that cancer can be detected earlier which improves the chances of it being treated effectively. Men can also be affected by breast cancer.
What is breast cancer
Breast cancer starts in the breast tissue. Not all lumps or changes mean cancer is present, breasts can feel lumpy just before a period. Breast cancer can affect the breast tissue and also the lymph nodes in the armpit area. In the UK every woman between 50 and 70 is invited for a mammogram every three years as part of the UK National Breast Cancer Screening Programme. The screening programme age range has recently been extended between 47 and 73. Women older than 70 can ask for a screening every three years.
Around 49,900 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. And around 350 men are diagnosed.
Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK (excluding non melanoma skin cancer) and by far the most common cancer in women.
1 in 8 women in the UK develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Most of the women who get breast cancer have had their menopause, but about 2 out of every 10 (20%) are under 50 years old.
The most common symptom of breast cancer is a lump in the breast. 90% of breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous). These lumps can be normal lumps that happen (especially around the time of a period), cysts, or fibrous tissue (Fibroadenoma).
*Pain in the breast (most pain is not as a result of cancer)
*Change in the size, shape or feel of the breast
*Skin changes (puckering, dimpling, rash or redness)
*Fluid leaking from a nipple (when you’re not pregnant or breast feeding)
*Changes in the position of the nipple
*Whole breast is inflamed and sore (Inflammatory breast cancer)
*Rash that looks like eczema around the nipple (Paget’s Disease)
* Getting older – the risk of developing breast cancer increases as women get older. As we get older the cells in our body have had more chance to make mistakes when they were dividing.
* Family history – Having a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer approximately doubles the risk of breast cancer. But more than 8 out of 10 women who have a close relative with breast cancer will never develop it.
* Faulty gene – If you have a very strong family history, there may be a faulty gene in your family that increases your risk of breast cancer. There are probably several gene faults that can increase breast cancer risk, including BRCA1 and BRCA2.
* A previous breast cancer – a woman who has had breast cancer has an increased risk of getting another breast cancer.
* Having cancer other than breast cancer – breast cancer risk is increased in people who have had other cancers such as Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma skin cancer, lung cancer, bowel cancer, womb cancer, and a type of leukaemia called chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
* Alcohol intake and smoking – drinking alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer by a small amount. Smoking tobacco increases the risk of breast cancer.
The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological treatments. The type of treatment given depends on the type and stage of breast cancer.
All breast cancer patients should be under the care of a multi disciplinary team, which includes a surgeon, specialist cancer doctors and nurses, a pathologist and a counsellor.
Coping with breast cancer
It can be very difficult to cope with a diagnosis of breast cancer, both practically and emotionally. At first, you may feel frightened or numb, or perhaps upset and confused. Or you may feel that things are out of your control. Get as much information as you can from your team.
Breast cancer and its treatment may cause physical changes in your body. These changes can be very difficult to cope with and may affect your self-esteem and confidence. Many women will have surgery, which can affect the shape of one or both breasts and cause scarring. Such body changes can affect how you feel about yourself and the way you relate to other people, especially close family and friends. Surgery may cause ongoing discomfort or soreness for some women.
Another problem you may have to cope with is feeling very tired and lethargic (fatigued) some of the time, especially after treatment. Please see my other blog on cancer fatigue for more information. Exercise can help with the symptoms of cancer treatment and some research has found that it can help to stop the cancer coming back.
Cancer may affect your sex life and your fertility. There are ways to preserve fertility during cancer treatment, so it’s not the end of the world if fertility is affected.
Talking about your illness with your family and friends can also be difficult. It can be especially difficult to talk to children and explain what is going on. It’s so important to get support and be able to talk about how you feel. Even if you are given the all clear it can be stressful and upsetting going for scans, and you may have anxiety about the cancer coming back.
If you are affected and need to talk things through with an experienced therapist, please contact me for a free thirty minute consultation.