It is now quite common to hear of women having breast cancer. Many organisations are trying to raise awareness on this dreadful disease and companies spend millions each year in an attempt to save the lives of women suffering from breast cancer. One preventive measure that is constantly being stressed throughout the world is early detection. But how early is early? When should women begin to examine their breasts?
Posed with the questions, a radiologist from a local medical institution said, “People should get to know their bodies from as early as possible. So girls should learn breast self-examination techniques from as soon as they develop breasts, not forgetting to examine the armpits as well. This should be done a few days after the period when the breasts are least sensitive. This information on breast self examination technique is widely available on the Internet.”
He then added, “Teens should also know that breast cancer is extremely rare in their age group, but this should not mean that they should ignore things like a lump or swelling and skin/nipple changes. The key is to identify what is normal, which varies from person to person. Everyone knows about breast size variation, but the shape and consistency are also different among individuals, and there is variation with the menstrual period as well.”
While we know of mammograms, which are normally used on women over 40, what sort of equipment is there to assist teens with early detection?
As an advocate for early detection he explained, “If an abnormality is detected on breast examination, then the patient should get examined by their doctor, who may then ask for an ultrasound scan of the breasts. This is a painless way to detect and characterise any abnormalities with no radiation, but it is not 100 per cent sensitive.
This means that the ultrasound can be normal, but in a small percentage of cases there can still be an underlying abnormality. At this point, the doctor and patient can decide to observe with close follow-up, refer to the surgeon or proceed with other tests such as mammogram or MRI. Mammogram is not very helpful in very dense breast tissue, as is almost invariably the case in this age group. MRI is very sensitive for focal abnormalities of breast tissue, but is expensive, time-consuming and requires an injection of dye.”
He added, “Given the rarity of breast cancer in this age group, the patient is usually re-assured and followed up by her doctor, rather than being subjected to invasive tests/treatment, unless there are strong or worrisome clinical signs or a very strong family history or other risk factor.”
If you’re wondering whether or not there are any programmes in place to help educate teens about breast cancer and early detection, the consultant radiologist disclosed to Health Plus: “This population is not targeted for any programmes as far as I am aware. It is, however, a good idea for there to be exposure to breast self-examination techniques and to be familiar with the next steps to be taken when there is a symptom of concern. Perhaps community nurses can give lectures regarding breast health to girls, and even boys, which I am sure is being done at present, but not universally.”
With that being said, does the doctor think enough is being done to educate young girls about breast cancer and other types of cancer in T&T?
He admitted: “Not really, but I think the overall strategy for cancer prevention in general should be emphasised to young people. Enough emphasis should be placed on a healthy diet, exercise and the dangers of smoking, in addition to the identification of risk factors and exposure to screening techniques.”
Regarding the services and facilities in this country when it comes to dealing with cancer, the doctor stated, “Obviously, there is more that could be done, but I think the health care team performs extremely well, given the limited resources that we have.
I would like to see more focus on screening, but we have to be mindful, that with screening for the various type of cancer in the whole population, there is going to be a huge workload created as a result - for example: follow-up tests, biopsies and surgeries.
At the end of the day however, screening saves lives (and even money, if done properly), and we as a society have to identify our priorities, and allocate funds accordingly as a healthy population is a wealthy one.”
So what does this doctor do to promote awareness of the dreadful disease? When asked this question, he stated, “Many of the clinics where I work have good educational and outreach programmes, where there are nice pamphlets for the public. As a physician, I often assist in outreach clinics, make presentations at health events and try to keep myself updated on new developments.”
Indeed it is important for young women to be aware of breast cancer and how to examine themselves. It is said that “prevention is better than cure.”