By Oluwatosin Faith Kolawole
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “cancer”? For most people, it’s automatically a death sentence. It’s like seeing your world crash right before you and you’re helpless, hopeless, as you count your numbered days on earth. You would probably ask yourself what you could have done to prevent it or what you can do now to escape the cold hands of death.
A breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It’s never the end but first, let’s talk about how you can prevent it.
In the latest WHO data published in 2018, Breast Cancer Deaths in The Gambia was up to 21 or 0.15% of total deaths, which makes the age-adjusted death rate of 5.57 per 100,000 of the population. You have a lesser risk of death with a breast cancer diagnosis but your chances of survival will be higher if you detect it early enough.
Check your breasts regularly at home
Form a habit of always examining your breasts at home to check for lumps or any anomaly. By doing this consistently, you will be familiar with your breasts and it will be easy to notice if there are changes. It will also help you notice early signs of breast cancer, so you can manage it appropriately before it progresses.
Some of these early signs include:
? Lumps in the breast or underarm area
? A sore or rash on the nipple
? Nipple discharge other than breast milk
? Changes in the size and shape of the breast
? Swelling, redness, or darkening of the breast
? Irritation or dimpling of the skin on the breast
? Nipple inversion
? Prominent veins visible on the breast
? Pain in the nipple region
The presence of one of these signs does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer, it might be due to other conditions. But to rule out doubts, you should see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Most of these symptoms point to a benign breast condition, i.e it’s not that serious and can be corrected. However, failure to detect these signs early can make the condition malignant, i.e there’s a high chance of it becoming breast cancer.
This is why it is often encouraged to examine your breasts at least once a month to detect early signs when they appear.
Examine some major signs further
Some major signs may point directly to breast cancer and can also be normal. This includes lumps, nipple discharge, and breast changes. Knowing the difference between the normal and anomaly can help you know whether or not to worry.
- Examine the lumps
You might sometimes notice a lump in your breast but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a benign or malignant breast condition. It might be due to your menstrual cycle or just a lumpy tissue in your breast that is not connected to anything.
However, you should see a doctor if you notice a lump in one breast and not the other, if the changes are not due to your menstrual cycle, and if the lump is harder than other parts of your breast. It could be cancerous if the lumps are hard, painless, and have uneven edges.
- Nipple discharge
If you’re not breastfeeding and you notice a discharge from your nipple without squeezing it, you should see your doctor. You should also check if the discharge contains blood and if it is in one breast and not the other.
- Normal breast changes
Your breasts are likely to change depending on what’s happening in your body. For example, puberty, pregnancy, and menopause are huge factors that can cause changes in your breast. These factors should be considered before making a diagnosis.
How to examine your breasts
- Stand upright
You can do this in the shower or your room and examine your breasts with your hands. Place one hand behind your head or across your head to touch your other ear, then use the pads of your three middle fingers to check the entire breast and underarm area. Apply light, medium, and firm pressure to check both superficial and deep layers. Repeat the same thing on the other breast.
- Stand in front of a mirror
Place your arms by your side and inspect your breasts in the mirror to spot any changes. Check for changes in color, dimpling of the nipple, or any swelling. You can also do this with your arms high overhead or on your waist.
- Lie down
Lie down on a flat surface, with a pillow under your shoulder and arm on one side for support. Use the other hand to examine the breast and underarm region. Apply light, medium, and firm pressure and squeeze the nipple for discharge. Repeat the process on the other side.
When to Examine
Examine your breasts monthly about 3-5 days after your period starts and try to be consistent with the timing each month. If you are already at menopause, choose a day in the month and do it on the same day every month, to get a consistent result.
Are you already diagnosed with breast cancer?
Getting diagnosed with breast cancer is not a death sentence. You still have a high chance of survival. Keep a positive mind all through and stick to the management process laid out by your doctor. Breast cancer is highly curable, so even if for some reason you were unable to detect the warning signs, there’s still hope.
For the campaign on Breast Cancer by Gambia Medical Student Association, Standing Committee on Public Health, Standing committee on Reproductive Health, Mother Care Initiative, Sustainable Health Initiative Africa and Department of Surgery EFSTH.