“Having regular screenings for breast cancer is the most important way to detect the disease at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of success. South African women are therefore encouraged to have their breast health monitored regularly.”
This is the view of oncologist, Dr Sylvia Rodrigues who heads up the cancer care centre at Netcare Clinton Hospital in Alberton, and who was speaking during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Dr Rodrigues points out that the prognosis for people who have developed breast cancer — which is the most common cancer to occur in women globally — is greatly improved in the majority of cases if it is detected at an early stage and treated appropriately from the outset.
“It is certainly useful for women to self-examine and to know the normal look and feel of their breasts, so that they are able to detect any changes that may have occurred, or if a lump has developed. It should be kept in mind, however, that in most cases lumps and changes in the structure to the breast tissue are not indicative of cancer, so women should avoid trying to self-diagnose which may cause them unnecessary distress,” notes Dr Rodrigues.
The importance of regular mammograms
“If you have concerns about changes to your breasts you should certainly take these up with your doctor and not leave seeking medical advice for a lump or irregularity in the hope that it will go away. The best way to monitor your breast health on an ongoing basis, however, is to supplement self-examinations by having your breasts regularly clinically examined by your doctor.
“In addition, and most importantly, we should also have our breasts screened through a breast care centre that has modern equipment, including high quality mammography technology, and has the benefit of experienced practitioners, as they can offer an improved screening solution. A number of international studies have shown that such an approach meaningfully improves breast cancer detection rates and can help to reduce mortality from breast cancer.”
Dr Rodrigues warns while most cases of breast cancer occur in women between the ages of 50 and 70, it can occur in women of all ages. She therefore advises women to consult their doctor about their potential risks of developing the condition, especially if there is a history of breast cancer in the family. She says that women can consider a baseline mammogram from the age of 35, followed by bi-annual mammograms and recommends that women of 40 years and older be screened annually.
Breast imaging service
Radiologist, Dr Neo Ndlovu who heads the FemRad breast imaging and bone densitometry service at Netcare Clinton Hospital, says the centre offers state-of-the-art mammography technology, including tomosynthesis, or three-dimensional mammography. The facility also offers breast ultrasound, has a breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) protocol in place, as well as breast biopsies, including stereotactic- and sonographic-guided breast biopsies.
“The FemRad breast imaging service at Netcare Clinton Hospital has been especially developed to offer women in the south-eastern areas of Johannesburg with a convenient and comprehensive breast health monitoring service. We also work closely with the multi-disciplinary team at the cancer care centre at Netcare Clinton Hospital.”
Dr Ndlovu says that the FemRad centre is offering women a 10% discount on mammography screenings during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
According to Dr Rodrigues, the cancer care centre at the hospital offers chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy and surgical intervention, or a combination of these, as may be necessary to treat most types of cancers.
While the facility treats all kinds of cancers, it also places an emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment of women’s cancers. A multi-disciplinary team including oncologists, gynaecologists, surgeons, radiologists and other breast care specialists has weekly forums to consider the most appropriate treatment approaches to be adopted in each individual’s case, as each patient’s condition and circumstances are unique and require personalised treatment and management.
Dr Rodrigues says that there are certain factors that place an individual at greater risk of developing breast cancer. These include older age, a relative who has developed the disease (especially if they developed it at a younger age), having had no children or having had children later in life, an early start to menstruation, heavy drinking (more than two alcoholic beverages a day) and smoking. However, no risk factors are apparent in some 60% of cases.
“It is well worthwhile for women to adopt a healthy diet, exercise and cut down on their drinking and smoking, as these lifestyle changes can assist in significantly decreasing the risks of developing cancer.
What to watch out for
According to Dr Rodrigues there are different types of breast cancer and some do not show any symptoms until they are at an advanced stage. You can, however, watch out for the following warning signs which could indicate a possible breast condition:
• Palpable lumps in the breast or armpit a week after menstruation
• A discharge from the nipple
• Unusual swelling of a breast or one breast becoming unusually shaped
• Painful or inverted nipples
• Enlarged glands under the arms and in the shoulder area
• A puckering or dimpling of the breast skin
• An orange peel appearance of the skin around the nipple.
Integrated breast care service
Esme Abrahams, general manager of Netcare Clinton Hospital, concludes, “This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we urge women to be vigilant about, their breast health. We can successfully fight breast cancer, as many survivors can testify, especially if it is diagnosed and treated early.
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