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Breast cancer: beyond the pink ribbon

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You probably know someone who has suffered from breast cancer; indeed, one out of nine women will be affected by this disease in her lifetime. Because early diagnosis is associated with a higher rate of survival, knowing more about breast cancer is undoubtedly a healthy move.

The breast is a female body part that is linked with beauty, femininity and maternity. For babies, the breast is closely linked to comfort and well-being. But for many women, it can be the source of serious worry when they are told they have breast cancer. Each year, over 5,000 women in Québec are diagnosed with this type of cancer. At first, the words “breast cancer” often lead to shock, then to a fight for survival, both for the sufferer and her loved ones. Every year in October (breast cancer awareness month), we are told of the issues surrounding this harsh reality, a reality on which we cannot turn our backs.

Breast cancer: the facts

Cancer develops when cells in the human body multiply in an abnormal, anarchic way. These cells are abnormal because they undergo a mutation, i.e. an unusual change, during their growth. Cancer can appear in any area of the body, such as the stomach, skin, lungs or breasts. When abnormal cells reproduce in the breast, they form a tumour that can either be benign (non cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

In women, breast cancer is the most frequent type of cancer. It is also the deadliest after lung cancer. Men can also develop breast cancer, but this is more rare.

The most significant risk factor for breast cancer is age. Indeed, this type de cancer most often affects women over 50. A family history of breast cancer (mother, father, sister or brother) is also a major risk factor since mutations of abnormal cells are transmitted from one generation to another. Other risk factors include:

  • previous incidence of breast cancer;
  • never having had children;
  • pregnancy past the age of 35;
  • menopause past the age of 55;
  • first period before the age of 12;
  • having had radiation therapy in the chest, especially at a young age;
  • taking hormones (during menopause) for more than five years.

Certain bad habits can also increase the risk of breast cancer, for example:

  • smoking;
  • consuming alcohol;
  • being overweight;
  • lack of exercise.

Early detection: your best ally

In most cases, breast cancer develops over several years without any sign whatsoever. To increase your chances of early cancer detection, it is essential to know your breasts well. They’re right under your nose, so it’s easy to give them all of your attention!

A few years ago, women were told to employ a specific method of breast self-examination. However, it is no longer necessary to use any particular technique. The most important thing is to know your breasts, as well as the area around them (nipples, collar bone and armpits). This way, it will be possible for you to recognize what is normal and to notice any unusual changes, such as the development of masses or lumps. Most changes you might notice will not be cancerous, but it is still a good idea to discuss them with your doctor. In addition, it is important to note that your breasts may change over time or show temporary modifications. For example, it can be normal for your breasts to have little bumps or to be more sensitive before your period.

In Québec, there is a program that allows women aged between 50 and 69 to get a mammogram every two years. A mammogram is the X-ray technique used to examine the breast. However, a woman whose mother has had breast cancer might want to get followed more closely and regularly. Your doctor will adapt the follow-up of the health of your breasts according to the significance of your risk factors. It is still important, though, to see him or her each year, or every other year, so that you can get a clinical examination of your breasts.

Finally, if you have any of the following symptoms, consult your doctor immediately to get an in-depth exam:

  • change in size or shape of breasts;
  • appearance of skin folds on a breast;
  • redness, swelling or heat in a breast;
  • inversed nipple (turned inside the breast);
  • crust or flaking (small pieces of skin falling off) on a nipple.

Available treatments

There are four types of treatment for skin cancer:

  • surgery;
  • radiation therapy;
  • chemotherapy;
  • oral pharmacotherapy (administering medication by mouth).

The choice of treatment depends on various factors, including:

  • how serious the cancer is;
  • where the cancer is located;
  • how the cancer has spread.

In the wide majority of breast-cancer cases, patients have to undergo a surgical procedure called mastectomy. This operation aims at removing the tumour. A mastectomy can be partial (only part of the breast is removed) or total (the entire breast is removed).

Oftentimes, in cases of partial mastectomy, the patient must receive radiation therapy. This treatment consists of exposing the breast to radiation (X-rays) in order to kill all cancerous cells that may not have been removed during the mastectomy. Later, chemotherapy or oral medication can be added to the treatment, depending on the cancer’s characteristics.

These days, a breast-cancer diagnosis is far less sinister than it was many years ago. Fortunately, thanks to awareness campaigns and increased medical knowledge, the mortality rate for this type of cancer has considerably reduced: since 1986, the global mortality rate is said to have lowered by nearly 42%. Nevertheless, breast cancer is a disease that must be taken seriously and detected as early as possible. You play a significant role in the prevention and, more particularly, the detection of this cancer; by being intuitive and determined to stay healthy, you will contribute to preventing this cancer from dampening the joys, benefits and beauty of womanhood!

Read more on the subject

La mammographie : À quoi s’attendre?

Mammograms: What to expect?

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4 questions to help detect breast cancer by yourself

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Prenez votre santé en main grâce à l’approche « connaître vos seins »

Take charge of your health with the “breast awareness” approach

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Le cancer du col de l'utérus

Cervical cancer

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