Doing her bit in Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, Dr Winnie Siu of Island Health Family Practice reveals some of the risk factors to avoid and warning signs to watch out for.
Breast cancer has been the most common cancer affecting women in Hong Kong since 1993. It’s the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, and over 3,000 new cases are reported each year. The median age of breast cancer patients here is 54; women over 40 are most at risk.
Early detection means less physical and emotional trauma and, most importantly, the best chance of survival. Women aged 40 to 50 should ensure that they are examined by a doctor every other year, and every year after the age of 50.
On turning 30, women should start examining themselves every month. This is best done a week after menstruation, and I recommend you do it in the shower. Ensure you feel both sides of the breasts and into the armpit two or three times with three fingers. You may find it easiest to have one hand above your head and feel the breast that side with the opposite hand and vice versa.
The most common sign of breast cancer is a hard lump in the breast or under the armpit. Other signs include any kind of change in the breast, such as a change in size or skin colour, and nipple discharge, bleeding or retraction.
Importantly, most lumps detected are benign. Fibroadenoma, a benign lump caused by excess growth of the glands and connective tissue in the breasts, is common in women under the age of 40. Lumps may also be cysts (most common in women approaching menopause), a fatty growth or infection. Likewise, while nipple discharge can be an early symptom of breast cancer (especially if the discharge is bloody), it can mean many things. Milky discharge is often associated with the end of pregnancy; green discharge is often caused by an infection. Discharge can also be the result of a benign tumour.
Only 6% of women who have a lump caused by breast cancer actually experience pain. Indeed, nipple pain is often the sign of an underlying infection, or the result of hormonal changes (triggered by a change in oestrogen and progesterone levels).
Most breast cancer cases occur in women over 40. Women who have children after the age of 30, who’ve never been pregnant or who’ve never breastfed are also at risk. Just 10% of all breast cancer is genetic but women with a family history of the disease will want to be especially vigilant.
To reduce the risk of breast cancer, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is vital – stick to a low-fat, high-fibre diet and make sure you exercise regularly. Anything that greatly increases levels of oestrogen in the blood, for instance excessive consumption of fatty foods and extended use of birth control pills, should be avoided. Smokers, drinkers, women who are overweight or suffer from a great amount of stress are putting themselves at risk.
You can contact Dr Winnie Siu of Island Health Family Practice on 2987 7575.