Lots of great things are happening this October! The weather is warming up, COVID-19 restrictions are starting to ease, the AFL grand final will be played, and the Melbourne Cup Carnival begins (even if it’s just to be enjoyed from our living rooms). And don’t forget that October is also breast cancer awareness month! We should embrace this opportunity to take care of our own breast health and support those with breast cancer in our community.
What can I do?
- Become breast aware
You don’t need to be a medical professional to check for changes in your breasts and recognise symptoms and signs of breast cancer. It is recommended to perform regular self breast examinations (for example in the shower), and learn what your normal breasts look and feel like. That way, you can notice any changes or potentially concerning features.
Symptoms and signs of breast cancer include:
- Breast skin changes
- Lumps in the breast or armpit
- Breast pain
- Nipple inversion or discharge
- Any change is size or shape of the breast, especially if only on one side
It is important to remember that while these symptoms and signs are not always due to breast cancer, it is essential to see your doctor if they do develop.
- Reduce your chances of getting breast cancer
Approximately 1 in 8 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85. Some risk factors for developing breast cancer, such as being a woman, having a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, and ageing cannot be modified. However, there are some risk factors that can be modified to reduce your chances of developing breast cancer:
- Alcohol: drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing breast cancer. Australian guidelines recommend that if you do drink alcohol, you should limit this intake to one standard drink per day.
- Body Mass Index (BMI): for postmenopausal women, a higher BMI is associated with increased breast cancer risk. Australian guidelines recommend keeping to a BMI of 18.5-25kg/m2 and having a waist circumference below 80cm.
- Exercise: Australian guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity daily.
- Combined (oestrogen and progesterone) hormone contraceptive pills and menopause hormonal replacement therapies have been associated with a small increased risk of breast cancer, with the risk increasing the longer it is taken. Risks revert to that of the background same-age population once hormonal therapies are ceased. If you are taking hormone therapy, practice breast self examination regularly. Any hormonal therapy used, be it for menopause symptoms or contraception, should be regularly reviewed with your doctor.
- Breastfeeding has been shown to have a protective effect on the breast. Women who have breast fed a baby exhibit a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. Longer durations of breastfeeding have been associated with lower breast cancer risk. The decision to breastfeed is a personal one which should be made by each woman, taking into account her own individual desires and circumstances.
Risk-reducing interventions such as surgery or medications may be appropriate if you are in a moderate or high risk category for developing breast cancer. An example is a woman who carries a gene like BRCA 1 or BRCA2 which predispose her to develop breast and other cancers. A woman’s individual risk of developing a breast cancer in this context can be defined by evidence-based algorithms. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, speak to your doctor about assessing your personal breast cancer risk.
- Get screened
BreastScreen Australia offers free breast screening every 2 years for women aged 50-74. Women aged 40-49 are likely to have more dense breasts than women in older age groups, which makes breast cancer more difficult to detect on mammography. However, women in this age group are still eligible to have free breast screens every 2 years. In addition, women over the age of 74 are also still eligible to have free breast screens every 2 years.
While BreastScreen Victoria was temporarily closed earlier this year due to COVID-19, they are now OPEN! They have appointments available, and you are allowed to travel more than 5km from your home to attend. However, you must not attend your BreastScreen appointment if you have any symptoms of COVID-19, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or have been in contact with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
- ‘Pink Up’
Let’s all ‘Pink Up’ and raise funds for breast cancer! You could host a Pink Ribbon Breakfast or Girls’ Night In. Visit the McGrath Foundation, National Breast Cancer Foundation and Cancer Council sites for some great ideas on how to become involved.
Written by Dr Lirone Wein, Breast Cancer Oncologist