Breast cancer is not just something that happens to older women. Many women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer, says the Cancer Society of South Africa.

As a South African woman, you have a lifetime risk of one in 27 of developing breast cancer and it is the most common cancer found among women who live in this country.

“Even though nobody in my circle of family and friends have had breast cancer, I have had family members diagnosed with other types of cancer,” says Haneem Kamish (20), a second-year BSc student at UCT.

“I don’t think the risk is quite as big for people my age, as it is for older women, which is why I haven’t had any screenings yet. But I do think regular screening should be encouraged, especially if it runs in your family,” adds Haneem.

There’s another very good reason for getting the checkups: finding out about the breast cancer in its early stages means that more and more women survive breast cancer and go on to lead a healthy and active life. Also, before you panic, remember that 80% of breast lumps are not cancerous.

In a study released by Discovery Health in September 2022, of all the cancers for which their members were treated, breast cancer was shown to have the highest five-year survival rate at 84.1%. Treatment has also improved much in the last few decades.

October is Breast Cancer Month, so there is no better time to focus on who is at risk for this, what the symptoms and the treatment options are, and what you can do to catch this cancer in its early stages.

Who is at risk?

While the risk goes up as you grow older, this cancer is also found in younger women, especially those with a close family member, like a mother or a sister, who developed breast cancer at an early age. Apart from this genetic risk, women with large breasts, or breasts that have dense tissue are also at a greater risk, as are women who are very overweight and those who drink a lot of alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

A lump in the breast or around the breast can be a common warning sign, but not all lumps are cancerous. You could also have bleeding or a discharge from the nipples. Swelling, tenderness that lasts more than a few days, a texture change in the skin, a rash or a change in the shape of the breast can all be warning signs. Remember that many women find that their breasts are tender or become larger before their periods, so do keep that in mind, and don’t panic unnecessarily.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

If there is a lump in your breast, or you have any of the other symptoms mentioned above, the doctor can send you for a mammogram or a breast ultrasound or an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)– all three types of X-rays that are used to get a more detailed picture of areas inside the breast. Sometimes a biopsy is done – this is test in which some of the tissue or fluid is removed from the breast and looked at under a microscope.

Tests are then done to find out if the lump is cancerous, whether the cancer is limited to the breast, or whether it has spread. This also helps doctors decide what type of treatment is right for a patient.

Main treatment options

– Hormone therapy – this blocks cancer cells from receiving the hormones they need to grow.
– Surgery – the cancer is cut out.
– Chemotherapy – strong medication is used to shrink the cancer cells.
– Radiation therapy – high-energy rays are used to kill the cancer cells.

What you can do to beat breast cancer

Learn how to do a breast self-examination every month.

“I do know how to do a breast self-examination, as this was something taught to the girls at my high school by a professional. I think it is important that every woman knows how to do a self-exam, as it allows us to monitor possible lumps and general breast health,” says Haneem.

You can watch a step-by-step video from CANSA to show you what to do here.

Next time you visit the doctor, you can also ask him or her to do a quick breast examination. It will only take a minute or two. If there is anything unusual, you could be sent for a mammogram at a hospital or a radiologist in your area.

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