Breast Cancer, two words which strike fear into the heart of every woman. This is hardly surprising given that it’s the second leading cause of death by cancer in women, after lung cancer. Although it is most prevalent in women over the age of 50, approximately 5 per cent of women under the age of 40 get breast cancer each year, according to data from the National Cancer Registry. For women of all ages, the rate is one in 11 annually.
As this month is Breast Cancer Awareness month Irish Life Health and the Irish Cancer Society are urging women to check themselves regularly for signs of breast cancer.
Keep an eye out for changes
“From the age of approximately 20 onwards, women should get into the habit of checking their breasts for changes on a regular basis,” says Naomi Fitzgibbon, the Cancer Nurse Line Manager at the Irish Cancer Society.
“In order to do this, you need to know what your breasts look like normally,” she adds. “You’d be surprised how many women don’t.”
Changes are normal
She points out that women’s breasts do change over time and factors like hormones, pregnancy, breast feeding, menopause and fluctuations in weight can all have an effect.
“Look out for lumps or bumps of any kind, puckering and inverted nipples which stay that way,” she says. “Also take into account pain under the arm or in the collar bone. Basically, anything different.”
If you do find changes on your breast, there’s no reason to be alarmed. In nine out of ten cases, a cyst is benign, according to the Irish Cancer Society. But it’s vital to have it checked out anyway. Women with a history of breast cancer in the family should be extra vigilant.
If you find a change in your breast, contact the Breast Cancer Nurse Line, a free phone service run by the Irish Cancer Society, which answers queries and offers advice, for women of any age.
The government funded Breast Check initiative offers free breast cancer screenings to all women over the age of 50, up to 69 years old, every two years. This is because research shows that this is the time when breast cancer is most likely to present.
Time is of the essence
“The sooner something is checked, the more likely the chance of survival,” says Naomi, adding that the survival rates have increased hugely in recent years, with strides in scientific research and increased awareness among Irish women. In fact, there’s now an 83 per cent survival rate of up to five years, according to Breast Cancer Ireland.
“In the past, each patient diagnosed with breast cancer would have been treated with chemotherapy as their standard treatment of care,” comments breast cancer surgeon and Chairman of Breast Cancer Ireland, Professor Arnie Hill.
“Today with sophisticated blood tests clinicians can provide personalised and tailored treatment plans for patients that will target their own specific form of breast cancer tumor and we have seen a 50 per cent drop in the number of patients requiring chemotherapy as a result.”
Free counselling service
The Irish Cancer Society also offers a free counselling service to women across the country. “While some women breeze through treatment, for others it’s traumatic,” explains Naomi. “We aim to make the experience as easy as possible and often put women in touch with other women who have breast cancer so they can support each other.”
In general, however there are certain things you can do to help prevent breast cancer, most of which are lifestyle based. These include eating a balanced nutritious diet, not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and doing regular physical activity. “By leading a healthy lifestyle, you limit your chances of breast cancer,” says Naomi. “This goes for all forms of cancer.”
If you are concerned about breast cancer, call the Breast Cancer Nurseline
Freephone: 1800 200 700.