Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent kinds of cancers detected, and in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, the month of October is dedicated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The awareness month is held to encourage women to get checked regularly and perform self-check-ups.
What is breast cancer?
Breast cancer is a tumour in the mammary gland, where the malignant cells multiply and grow and can affect other organs.
Although the thought of breast cancer can be daunting to many women, with the help of early detection and treatment, breast cancer can be treatable.
What to look for?
One of the most critical steps for early detection is to perform regular self-examinations at home, at least every month.
While doing self-examinations, individuals should be mindful to feel for something new, and if concerned about an issue, it is crucial always to get it checked.
To perform a self-examination, Dr Rania Soued, Specialist Radiologist at Mediclinic Al Sufouh said, "Women are advised to examine their breasts soon after their period ends. They should stand in front of a mirror and look for skin changes and examine them methodically quadrant-wise with the flat of their fingers or palm."
According to Dr Shweta Agarwal, Breast Radiologist at Allied Medical Centre, some of the early signs are:
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- 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
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
- Pain in any area of the breast
As there are types of cancers that are fast-growing, getting regular check-ups, especially when older, is crucial.
"Every 2 to 3 years, to get check-ups from the ages of 20 to 39 years old and once a year after the age of 40 years old." advised Dr Rania Soued of Mediclinic Al Sufouh.
Dr Jawahar Charles Mathais, Specialist General Surgeon at Dubai London Clinic and Speciality Hospital advised that on frequency for different types of examinations "Monthly breast examinations, yearly ultrasound scans, and mammograms should be done every two years."
Women that notice an issue, should immediately book an appointment with a doctor and get follow-up tests done to rule out any possibilities.
Dr Rania Soued of Mediclinic Al Sufouh said that the ways for breast cancer check-ups to be done are through:
- Physical examination: Physical examination of the breast - checking for lumps, hardness or tenderness in the breasts and lymph nodes
- Mammogram: X-ray of the breast
- Ultrasound: Imaging the breast using sound waves to detect for abnormal lumps
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI of the breast provides a detailed image of the breast lumps
- Positron emission tomography (PET): To determine the staging of cancer
- Breast biopsy: Removing a sample of breast cells for microscopic examination
Who is at risk?
Although breast cancer is more prevalent in older women, it can be passed down through genetics, making it important for all women to start incorporating self-check-ups from an early age.
Dr Jawahar Charles Mathais from Dubai London Clinic and Speciality Hospital said, "We usually recommend after 40 years, but as breast cancer is getting more common and seen in younger patients and patients in a high-risk group, we advise breast self-examination, check-ups, and ultrasound examination at age 25 and above."
Women that are at the most risk, as mentioned by Dr Shweta Agarwal of Allied Medical Centre include:
- The risk for breast cancer increases with age. Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 50
- Women who have inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such as BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, are at higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer
- Starting menstrual periods before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55 expose women to hormones longer, raising their risk of getting breast cancer
- Dense breasts have more connective tissue than fatty tissue, which can sometimes make it hard to see tumours on a mammogram. Women with dense breasts are more likely to get breast cancer
- Personal history of breast cancer or certain non-cancerous breast diseases
- Family history of breast or ovarian cancer
- Previous treatment using radiation therapy
- Exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES)
Breast cancer survival rates
According to 'Breast cancer survival and its prognostic factors in the United Arab Emirates: A retrospective study', in 2021, breast cancer in the UAE has a five-year survival rate of 89%.
The severity of breast cancer is divided into four stages and Dr Shweta Agarwal of Allied Medical Centre mentioned that, "The survival rate also depends on the biological subtype of cancer and staging."
Dr Rania Soued from Mediclinic Al Sufouh added, "Stage 4 breast cancer is the latest stage. Though treatable, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured as it has spread outside the breast and may be affecting vital organs, like the brain and lungs. The five-year survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer is 22%, average survival is three years."
On surviving breast cancer, Dr Jawahar Charles Mathais of Dubai London Clinic and Speciality Hospital added, "As everywhere else, this depends on the stage at which it was diagnosed and the urgency with which treatment was initiated."
The idea of regular check-ups and self-examinations can be extremely worrying, especially for people with family history, rather than not knowing what the outcome will be, finding out can give the individual more time to recover.
Our bodies always give us signals when something is wrong, and listening to your body and the signs given is important.
If you feel like there is something wrong, it is always advisable to get a check-up done to rule out any issues.
This month, encourage all the women in your life to get regular check-ups and help to tackle breast cancer earlier rather than later.