Breast cancer women’s number one killer

WHEN someone tells you breast cancer, what comes into your mind immediately?  Death sentence, that’s what.  This is especially true among women. 

hf01a-102716Understandably so.  Around the world, breast cancer is the leading killer of women ages 35 to 54. More than a million develop the disease without knowing it, and almost 500,000 women die from it every year, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In Asia, the Philippines has the highest incidence rate of breast cancer. Not only that, it is among the top 10 countries with the most cases of breast cancer, according to a document released by the Asian Hospital and Medical Center (AHMC).

The Department of Health (DOH) and the Philippine Cancer Society, Inc. (PCSI) considered breast cancer as the most common form of cancer in the country – particularly among women.  “One out of every 13 Filipino women is expected to develop breast cancer in her lifetime,” the AHMC document stated.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization reports that one out of four women who are diagnosed with breast cancer die within the first five years.  What is even alarming is that all women are at risk, with approximately 70 percent of breast cancer occurring in women without the known risk factors.

“And the numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate for the simple reason that most women only consult a doctor when it is too late,” says the AHMC, which offers new technology for early breast cancer treatment. 

A diagnosis of breast cancer is indeed a harrowing experience.  “I first noticed the lump in my breast in the last week of December 2006,” recalls Rosalinda E. Villaseca, the founding president of the Davao-based Mindanao Cooperative Cancer Society (MCCS). “Initially, I felt a pain in my left armpit.”

She reckoned the pain must be due to the stressful driving she did from Panabo City to Davao City and then back to Panabo again.  But after reading some magazine articles, she surmised that the lump must be something else. So, she went to a doctor and was diagnosed of having a breast cancer.

Villaseca was totally terrified upon hearing the diagnoses, but after realizing that everyone has to die anyway, “I accepted it fully as His will,” she said. Considering that she was already 62 years old at that time, “I am ready to return to Him as our life in this world is just borrowed.”

Breast cancer usually begins with formation of a small, localized tumor.  “Some tumors are benign that they do not invade other tissue; others are malignant or cancerous,” explains The Medical Advisor: The Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments.  “The potential for a malignant tumor to spread is common to all cancer.  Once such a tumor grows to a certain size, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.”

In early stages, breast cancer usually has no symptoms.  As a tumor progresses, a woman may experience pain or tenderness in her breast.  She may also observe swelling in the armpit.  But the most apparent symptom is a lump in the breast.  More than 80 percent of breast cancer cases are discovered as a lump by the woman herself.

Generally, a lump in the breast can be known through breast self-examination (BSE).   One local study reveals that only 54 percent had ever done a BSE, of whom only 27 percent are still practicing it at an average of 9.2 times a year. Some of the reasons given for not doing the BSE: “no symptoms,” “busy,” “don’t know how,” “don’t like,” “don’t think important,” “always forget,” “afraid,” and “not aware.”

Aside from lump, other indicators include a noticeable or indentation on the breast; a change in the contour, texture, or temperature of the breast; a change in the nipple, such as an indrawn or dimpled look, itching or burning sensation; and unusual discharge from the nipple that may be clear, bloody, or another color.

Although the precise causes of breast cancer are unclear, there are some known risk factors.  The risk factors that most fact sheets and bulletins on breast cancer identify include family history, genetics, menstrual period that began before age 12 and ended after age 55, early and repeated exposure to relatively high doses of radiation, and long-term post-menopausal estrogen replacement.

Women should watch what they eat.  Recent studies have shown that cooking methods like boiling food in coconut milk have been associated with a significantly increased risk of breast cancer in the country.  Another study suggests that high intake of deep-fried, well-done red meat may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

The earlier a cancerous lump is detected and removed, the bigger the chances of treating it, says Dr. Antonio Villalon.

He advised that between 20 and 39 years old, every woman should have a clinical breast exam every three years; and after age 40 every woman should have a clinical breast exam done each year.

However, women should not panic once they feel a lump on their breast.  After all, most breast lumps are harmless, with up to three of four lumps that are suspected of being cancerous turning out to be benign cysts, fibromas or lipomas.  To have peace of mind, a woman should have the lump screened by a doctor.

Mammograms — a type of X-ray — are the chief way now to check for breast cancer.  However, a radioactive tracer that “lights up” cancer hiding inside dense breasts showed promise in its first big test against mammograms, revealing more tumors and giving fewer false alarms.  The experimental method — molecular breast imaging (MBI) — would not replace mammograms for women at average risk of the disease.

But it might become an additional tool for higher risk women with a lot of dense tissue that makes tumors hard to spot on mammograms, and it could be done at less cost than magnetic resonance imaging, according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which has been working on it for six years.

If diagnosed with breast cancer, Villalon said this can be treated by surgery, hormonal treatment, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  In the United States, some researchers are exploring treatment with various forms of immunotherapy; by manipulating the body’s immune system, they hope to improve its natural resistance to cancer.

Some studies have shown that women can avoid breast cancer by doing the following:

  • Do regular exercise (three times a week for one hour each) has been found to lower breast cancer by up to 40 percent. Breastfeeding and having children at a younger age also lower breast cancer risk.
  • Take plant estrogen such as those from soy products protect against breast cancer especially when taken regularly early in life.
  • Consume folic acid (Vitamin B9), which helps repair damage in our DNA, also counter cancer. Citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables beans and peas are all rich in folate.
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. Tobacco and its many components such as nicotine and tar are proven carcinogens.  Drinking alcoholic beverages moderately helps.  Also, avoid unprotected sex, drug use and other high risk behaviors.
  • Know your family’s medical history. Having a history of breast cancer in one’s family greatly increases one’s risk and should make one extra vigilant.
  • Conduct regular medical and breast self-examination.

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