Breast Cancer Awareness Month is held every October to highlight the importance of early detection, through performing self check-ups and getting regular testing done. Early detection plays a critical role in treating breast cancer, as the sooner it is detected, the easier it is to treat.
One of the most commonly detected types of cancer found in women is breast cancer, and according to the World Health Organisation, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with the life-threatening disease in 2020. Additionally, in a report released by the Ministry of Health and Prevention in the UAE in 2019, more women were affected by cancer than men, with 20.2% of the cases being due to breast cancer.
To raise awareness on the issue, Connector has asked doctors around the UAE, to share more insight into breast cancer.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast begin to grow in an abnormal way. These cells grow more than healthy cells, and come together to form a tumour. When this takes place, there are symptoms that happen, indicating that there is a possibility of breast cancer.
Dr Shweta Agarwal, Breast Radiologist at Allied Medical Centre said, "Breast cancer happens when cells in your breast grow and divide in an uncontrolled way, creating a mass of tissue called a tumour. Breast cancer can be of different subtypes and the treatment depends upon the molecular subtype of cancer. Signs of breast cancer can include feeling a lump in your breast, bloody discharge from the nipple, experiencing a change in the size of your breast and seeing changes to the skin on your breasts."
What are some of the early signs of breast cancer?
As no two people are the same, with breast cancer, the symptoms and intensity can vary from person to person. However, there are some changes that are common in breast cancer, and if any changes are noticed in the breast, it is advised to get it looked at, to rule out the possibility of breast cancer or then start treatment earlier.
Some changes to be mindful of that Dr Aida Bjelopoljak, Specialist Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Dubai London Hospital added are:
- New lump in the breast or underarm
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
- Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or the breast
- Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
How often should people check for breast cancer and what are the steps for self-examinations?
It is important for all women to perform self-check-ups and visit a doctor, if there are any changes. Some lumps can be benign, which are non-cancerous cells, however, in some situations, lead to cancerous tumours. As prevention is better than cure, breast examinations can help in noticing any changes, and should be performed on the third or fifth day of a menstrual cycle.
Dr Shweta Agarwal at Allied Medical Centre said, "Breast check-ups can be self-examination and assessment by a doctor. Monthly self-examinations should be done between days three and five of the cycle. Examination by the doctor should be done, in case of any concerns related to the breast or any unintentional weight loss. Breast examination should also be included in routine annual examinations with your family doctor."
To perform a self-examination, first look for changes in the mirror, like lumps, redness, and flaky skin, and then raise hands and repeat the same. Based on personal preference, self-check-ups can either be performed in the shower or while sitting or standing. To check for any lumps or swelling, press the fingers together and feel the breast in small circular motions, about the size of a coin. If any changes are noticed during the self-examination, it is advised to get a consultation from the doctor.
At what age should people start checking for breast cancer?
Breast cancer usually occurs in older women, from 40 years and older, however, in recent years, it is also prevalent in younger women. Self-examinations are a great preventative measure to take, that can be done in the comfort of the home for women of differing ages, and if there are any changes that are noticed, a visit to the doctor can be taken. For people aged 40 years and below, along with regular self-check-ups, mammograms, where an X-ray of the breast is taken, is advised.
Dr Mehdi Afrit, Medical Director and Specialist at Medical Oncology at Burjeel Speciality Hospital Sharjah said, "Women between the ages of 40 and 44 are advised to initiate an annual screening routine involving both ultrasound breast scans and mammograms. For those between 45 and 54, it is recommended to undergo regular annual breast imaging. Postmenopausal women aged 55 and above have the option to do mammograms every two years, or they can opt to continue with yearly screenings. The screening process should persist as long as a woman maintains good health and has a life expectancy of 10 years or more."
People who have a history of cancer among family members, be it direct or further along the family line, should get regular check-ups, as they are more susceptible to developing breast cancer. The breast cancer gene (BRCA), raises the chances of breast cancer, due to inheriting it from the family.
Dr Mehdi Afrit of Burjeel Speciality Hospital Sharjah added, "It is important for all women to take into account their family medical history, particularly in relation to breast cancer or breast disease. Women with a substantial family history of cancer or those with specific genetic mutations like BRCA should receive vigilant and comprehensive monitoring, which may involve the use of breast MRI for closer observation."
Are there people that are more susceptible to developing breast cancer?
One of the most common reasons for people developing breast cancer is through family history. Individuals who inherit genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2, are more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer. There are other factors that are also linked to developing cancer at higher rates like a history of issues relating to the breasts and undergoing radiotherapy. Dr Mehdi Afrit of Burjeel Speciality Hospital Sharjah said, "Genetic mutations, such as those inherited in the case of BRCA1 and BRCA2, elevate the susceptibility to both breast and ovarian cancers. Factors tied to hormones and reproduction, such as early puberty, before the age of 12, and late menopause, after the age of 55, which entail prolonged exposure to hormones, contribute to heightened risk. Additional risk factors encompass dense breast tissue and a personal history of breast ailments, including conditions like atypical ductal hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ. A family history of breast or ovarian cancer also augments the risk profile. Moreover, individuals who underwent radiotherapy targeting the chest or breasts before the age of 30, for the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, are at an escalated risk."
When should a person visit the doctor, when unsure about their symptoms?
The symptoms of breast cancer can vary from person to person. A crucial way to detect breast cancer early is through self-examinations, which can be done once a month. Additionally, it is advised to get regular screenings, as doctors can provide more clarity, and help in finding out if there are unusual developments. Some of the options for screening include, ultrasound breast scans where sound waves are used to produce images of the structure of the breast, and mammograms. When unsure, women can discuss the best course of action with their doctors.
Dr Aida Bjelopoljak of Dubai London Hospital added, "If any of these symptoms appear, consult your doctor promptly. Any unusual lump, pain, or swelling in your breast. Make sure to schedule annual breast ultrasounds for girls and young women up to 40 years old, mammograms should be performed after 40 years of age if there is a family history of breast cancer. If there is a family history of breast cancer even earlier or more often, it should be discussed with your doctor."
Can breast cancer affect men?
One of the common misconceptions about breast cancer is that it can only affect women. Although the risks are lower, there are chances of men developing breast cancer, and can form in the small amounts of breast tissue, behind their nipples.
Dr Shweta Agarwal at Allied Medical Centre said, "Breast cancer usually happens in men over 60 years old, but can very occasionally affect younger men. Men should visit a physician for evaluation when there is a lump in their breast, any worrying symptoms such as nipple discharge, and a history of breast cancer in men or women in their family and worried about their chances of getting it. If there are no symptoms but have a clear family history of breast cancer, the breast specialist would be able to discuss your risks of getting it."
Are there ways to lower the risks of breast cancer?
There are many factors that can cause breast cancer, especially with family history, the risks are higher. However, living a more active lifestyle, eating healthy and working out can help in minimising the risk to a certain degree.
Dr Aida Bjelopoljak of Dubai London Hospital said, "Keep a healthy weight, be physically active, breastfeed your child if possible and if you have a family history of breast cancer or inherited changes in your BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, talk to your doctor about other ways to lower your risk."
As breast cancer is prevalent among women, it is important to raise awareness throughout the month of October, to remind everyone to perform self-checkups and get regular examinations, to detect breast cancer and treat it earlier.