Breast cancer and you: what every woman needs to know

Dr Marcel Knesl / 15 Oct, 2019

Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment

Did you know that breast cancer is expected to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia this year?

Although breast cancer affects both men and women, 99% of people diagnosed are women. It’s estimated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that this year alone, 1 in 7 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by their 85th birthday.

Fortunately, Australia has one of the best survival rates of breast cancer in the world, with a five year survival rate of 91%. For women over 40, BreastScreen Australia provides free, two-yearly mammograms in more than 600 locations across Australia. Mammograms can detect breast cancer in its early stages, before the cancer has the chance to spread.

Even if you receive regular mammograms, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and keep an eye out for any changes by conducting routine, monthly self-examinations. Some common symptoms to look out for include:

  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast
  • Any new lumps in the breast or under your arm
  • Discharge of fluid (except breast milk) from the nipple, including blood
  • Dimpling or a ‘pulling’ of skin on your breast
  • Breast pain or swelling
  • Dry, flaky red skin around the nipple area

Your breast can typically feel lumpy, so it can be difficult to know what is normal and what could potentially be cancerous. However if you experience any of these symptoms, I would encourage you to see your GP and tell them about what you’ve been experiencing.

You might be referred to a specialist to further investigate if you have breast cancer and guide you to appropriate treatment.

There are many different treatments for breast cancer.

The treatment that you receive depends on a variety of factors, such as where your cancer is located and how large the tumour is, if it has spread, what your treatment preferences are, and your fitness and general health.

The main types of treatments for breast cancer are surgery (which includes removing either the cancerous lump within the breast or the entire breast), hormone therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapies.

You may have heard of two of the more common forms of cancer treatment, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. It’s typically provided on an outpatient basis at a day hospital and works by destroying all rapidly dividing cells. However, some healthy cells are also damaged which causes many of the more common side effects of chemotherapy (such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, diarrhoea or constipation and loss of appetite).

Unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy doesn’t have the same amount of side effects – but it isn’t suitable for every breast cancer diagnosis.

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is the use of radiation to safely treat and manage cancer. Radiation oncologists use radiation to destroy cancer cells, reduce their growth or relieve symptoms of cancer.

You may also use the Deep Inspiration Breath Hold technique, which protects the heart during radiation therapy treatment for left-sided breast cancer patients.

The technique involves holding a certain number of breaths for short bursts during treatment, which allows the heart to move backwards into the chest while the breast is exposed to radiation.

People who go on to receive radiation therapy or chemotherapy can be treated at an oncology centre, such as Icon Cancer Centre, that allows them to schedule sessions at their own convenience.

Although these treatments are more common, breast cancer isn’t treated with a one-size-fits-all approach and requires a multi-disciplinary team of doctors and specialists to design a treatment plan that’s specific to you.

It can be easy to let life get in the way, but the most important advice I can give is to make sure you put your health first. If you’re concerned that something isn’t right, trust your gut and get checked by the doctor.

Dr Marcel Knesl is a Radiation Oncologist at Icon Maroochydore.

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