A few weeks ago I wrote about my recent breast cancer scare. I am lucky that this time it was just a scare. I'm hoping that if there is a next time that again it will just be a scare. There is a good chance though at some stage it might not be; one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
During my weeks of waiting for results, the thought that kept crossing my mind, or rather the plea my mind was screaming to the universe was "Please please don't let me have breast cancer as a young woman!" Treatment for breast cancer is improving all the time but young women often have poorer outcomes. This is partially because the cancers detected in young women can be more aggressiv; if oestrogen dependent there are high levels of oestrogen present so they grow more quickly. However one of the most significant issues in the long term survival rates of younger women is lack of detection and misdiagnosis.
Love Your Sister is a charity started by Samuel and Connie Johnson. Connie is 35 and is dying from
misdiagnosed breast cancer that has metastasised. When Connie went to
the doctor with breast lumps she was diagnosed with mastitis despite the
fact that her youngest was three and she had not breastfed him for some
time. By the time an oncologist diagnosed cancer months later, it had
spread. Samuel rode a unicycle across Australia, raising more than a million dollars for breast cancer research and spreading the word about cancer awareness.
Sadly Connie's story is not unusual. There are many young women who have breast lumps dismissed by their doctor without proper investigation. Similarly, a lot of young women don't check their breasts. When I was going through my tests and talking about it with my friends, many replied that they do not check, usually citing that they don't have a family history (so therefore don't need to worry). Only 15% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history. So if you've got tits, you need to check them. The part that really got to me about Connie's story is that she said in
an interview that if the cancer had been diagnosed earlier it would have
just been an inconvenience in her life. Connie and Samuel have just published a book about their extraordinary journey. A portion of the profit from each sale is donated to cancer research. It's called "Love Your Sister" and is on sale now. Samuel said in an interview when he finished his ride that he wants to raise ten million dollars for cancer research. If you are interested in helping him you can donate here.
I've said this before, we need to talk about this stuff more. Young women need to be taught how to do a self-examination (here is a good guide), a breast examination by a health professional needs to be as routine and as common as a pap smear and any concerns need to be addressed seriously. The good news is that more than 80% of breast lumps are benign. But if you are ever in the other 20% you want to be dealing with that earlier rather than later.
In Australia two-yearly mammograms are recommended in women 50 and over. If you have a family history of breast cancer it is recommended you start being screened from 40 years of age, or 10 years before your relative's age at diagnosis. Regular screening is not considered necessary for younger women but a yearly examination by a GP (just as part of a general health check) is important and monthly self-examination is recommended. The best time to self-check is the week after your period has started because breasts tend to be less lumpy then. A little trick I have learnt is that, if you feel 'something', check on the other side too and if it feels the same it is very likely to be a normal anatomical structure (like a rib. Yup, I went to the doctor about a slightly more prominent rib once...). Also, once you are familiar with how your breasts normally feel you are better able to detect any changes. If ever you are at all concerned talk to your GP straight away. Early detection saves lives and improves outcomes.
Don't fall into the booby-trap, be breast aware.
PS. My buddy Carly is giving away a copy of 'Love Your Sister' on her blog. She has been following and supporting Samuel and Connie since the beginning so pop on over and check out the full story.