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Beating breast cancer: The key is Prevention

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October is breast cancer awareness month globally. This is not a trivial step in advocacy because breast cancer is on the rise, and is the commonest cancer amongst women in both developed and developing countries. Therefore this is a good time to take a good and feel of your breasts, and learn or reinforce methods to care for them.

Breasts are a normal part of both male and female anatomy, even though they are notably more prominent in women. For many women it is their glory, and social indication that they are feminine and attractive. But the breasts require intentional care in preventing cancer.

Generally this involves maintaining a lifestyle to reduce the risk of cancers, as well as breast cancer as one advances in years. These include a healthy diet, regular movement by way of exercise, quitting tobacco and alcohol use, and maintaining a healthy weight at a body mass index between 18 and 25. Additionally a late age at first pregnancy, a failure to carry a baby to term and to breast feed equally carry increased risk. These risk factors are things that can be modified by our choices. However there are other risks that really cannot be changed especially growing older, a family history of breast cancer, or mutations of the BRCA (1&2) genes. So, the emphasis is doing what can be changed as well as ensuring early diagnosis and screening in preventing breast cancer.

So what more specifically can you do? The most important is the breast self-examination. Literally, this implies that responsibility falls on individuals to get the examination done. Health professionals and currently apps can demonstrate how this can be done but essentially it involves monthly breast checks at a specific time of the cycle – for women.

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First is a visual inspection. The breasts free from support or clothing are closely observed standing in front of a mirror. The purpose is to develop a familiarity with ones’ breasts, in its normal state, to help each person recognize when something is wrong. This is done standing in front of a mirror at chest level alternating with hands by the sides, arms raised and palms pressed together or arms down with palms pressing the hips. While striking these poses, observe breast size, shape and symmetry, inversion (inward turning) of nipples, and changes in skin texture. Any change is a cause for concern.

Then the examination become tactile – using the pads of the fingers in systematically circular pattern covering the entire breast in sections. One can palpate the breasts this way either lying down or standing up. So, it is very common (and notably easier) to do this in the shower. For denser breasts, it is helpful to stabilize the examined breast with the non-dominant hand and use the dominant hand (the one used in writing for instance) to feel. Normally the breast has its own texture and changes as the menstrual cycle progresses but any lumps or swellings must be investigated. This is why it is necessary to examine breast frequently and at specific time – typically at the start of a new cycle.

Findings that require further investigation includes a hard lump, changes in breasts look and feel, skin discoloration or textural changes (commonly like that of an orange peel), nipple changes, bloody nipple discharge and itchiness. For some nothing may be seen; so advisably and above 40, mammography can help better outline the structures of the breast. Interestingly, these changes may be observed by spouses or partners, who for by nature of their intimacy also need to be aware that breast cancer can affect both men and women. So, it is essential to transfer this knowledge in looking out for our significant others.

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Breast cancer is a scourge that must be dealt with. For every death, families, communities and the society at large bears unquantifiable losses across all dimensions of life. But the suffering and death can be prevented by lifestyle changes and a proactive approach to self-breast examination. Therefore, it is advised that we spread this knowledge far and wide. Breast cancer can often be dealt with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation when found early, so we must advocate for more awareness in keeping our sisters, daughters, mothers, wives and friends safe.

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Joan Alaboson Joshua is a public health physician and medical doctor with experience in primary care, disease prevention, and health program management in Nigeria. She works to contribute to improved health and wellness.

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