Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Wake Up Call

Breast cancer is a frightening disease to women, and while the experts are researching for a cure, many of us have already know that there are many prevention tools we can use to avoid breast cancer. Yet, not many of us bother, some usually think, "it wouldn't happen to me!" Recent incidents at home were a wake up call to me that I need to pay more attention to my health.

Statistics from BCF (Breast Cancer Foundation) show that breast cancer has become a major health problem in women and the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer is climbing. It is a very common type of cancer which hits 1 in 12 women in the course of their lifetime. Breast cancer is rarely found in very young women, it occurs more frequently with increasing age.

Whilst the causes of breast cancer are not completely understood, modern research is making rapid progress in controlling the disease, through earlier and more accurate diagnoses and improved methods of treatment.

What is breast cancer?
Breasts contain many glands that are made up of small building blocks known as cells, which produce breast milk after pregnancy. These cells normally divide and grow in an orderly manner. However, sometimes, for reasons still not known, a few of these cells become uncontrolled and continue to divide and grow causing a lump or tumour to be produced. In some women, this process can take 3 or 4 years or even longer before the lump can be detected.

Breast lumps can be either benign (innocent), which are contained in one area of the breast, or malignant, which means that they consist of cancer cells that can spread to other parts of the body, through either the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of tiny glands that helps the body produce cells to fight infection. Doctors can tell whether or not a breast lump is benign or malignant by taking a small sample from the tumour (called a ‘biopsy’) and looking at the cells under a microscope.

What causes breast cancer?

There is not just a single cause of breast cancer and it is possible that a number of factors are responsible. Whilst a family history of breast cancer does increase risk, it is far from certain that this factor alone will lead to any woman getting the disease.

Many risk factors have been identified in the search to understand how breast cancer occurs. None of them on its own is considered to be a single risk factor, but taken together they can indicate an increased risk of developing the disease. For example, women who have not had children or had them late in life seem to have an increased risk, as do women whose periods started when they were very young or who had a late menopause. Diet appears to play a role, in that those who have a very fatty diet have a slightly increased chance of getting breast cancer compared with those who eat more healthily. However, despite an increased knowledge of the variety of risk factors for breast cancer, approximately half of the women who develop the disease have no known risk factors at the time of diagnosis.

How women react?
I believe the initial reaction is one of denial, like my sister and sister-in-law. Wishful thinking that the lump is “nothing serious” and that it would somehow go away. As the lump gets bigger, some patients do not dare to see a doctor partly because they realise that this is cancer and they fear the treatment process – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Others have a fatalistic view that if it is cancer, they are doomed anyway…

Hear what the doctors say: “Early detection saves lives”.

If you are a woman over the age of 40, call your doctor to arrange for a mammogram today. More breast cancers are being detected at an early stage because of greater awareness of the importance of mammography screening. These very early cancers have no symptoms and often cannot be felt even by an expert. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better are the chances of cure.

With surgery alone, the cure rate is 100% for stage 0, 70-80% for stage 1, 50% for stage 2 and 10-30% for stage 3 breast cancer. These cure rates can be significantly improved by the addition of hormonal therapy, chemotherapy or some newer targeted therapies.

Breast cancer is one of the most treatable and curable of all the cancers. Even at the advanced stage, patients can often continue to live for many years. It is hard to believe but women actually shy away from mammograms because of the stories that it is painful. There is some discomfort when the breast is compressed as flat as possible so that the best images can be taken. However, I think it is worth it if this maximum of two minutes of discomfort can give you a better chance of detecting breast cancer early.

It does not mean that you are safe if you have no family history of the breast cancer. Some women claimed “But I breastfed my children!”. It is believed that breastfeeding offers some degree of protection against breast cancer but it does not guarantee against it.

I have made an appointment for mammogram. I hope that you can remind your mothers, grandmothers, wives and sisters to go for a mammogram.

By the way, my sister-in law and sister are on the recovering route. God bless.

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