Breast cancer is one of the leading forms of cancer among women globally. It accounts for 32% of all new cancer cases and 18% of all cancer deaths in women. A recent study estimates the total annual incidence of breast cancer at 1.7 million with about 522,000 annual deaths. 5.6% of these incidents occur in sub-Saharan Africa with 9.1% of the deaths occurring in the region. In Nigeria, breast cancer represents about 23% of all cancers in 2020 according to the International Agency for Research in Cancer. It was also the most common cancer amongst women in the country, representing 39% of all new cancer cases in 2020. Studies have shown a higher incidence of breast cancer amongst urban dwellers compared with rural dwellers.
We will answer a few questions about the disease in the following sections.
What Causes Breast Cancer?
The disease is caused by an abnormal growth in the cells in the breast. These cells can continue to grow and eventually divide at a higher rate than normal cells. As they divide, they accumulate together and form a mass and may also spread to other parts of the body.
Several factors have been linked to the occurrence of breast cancer. The following are some of the risk factors identified:
According to McPherson et. al, the incidence of the disease increases with age. The possibility of developing it doubles every 10 years until a woman reaches menopause. However, it starts to decline at 75 years. This implies that if a woman has not developed breast cancer by the age of 75, the possibility of her developing the disease starts to reduce.
A family history of the disease increases the chances of a woman developing it. Some of the genes identified as possible triggers for breast cancer can be passed down through generations. If a woman inherits the gene, there is a possibility that she may develop it at some point in her life.
Alcohol consumption is a factor which has been found to be present for many sufferers. In some cases, women who consume as little as one drink a week on a consistent basis have developed the disease. The longer a woman maintains a level of consistent alcohol consumption (no matter the quantity consumed), the higher her risk of developing the disease. Researchers also found that the risk of developing the disease does not reduce if a woman stops drinking after a long period of consistent consumption.
What are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer presents several symptoms. One study found a total of 56 distinct symptoms which women diagnosed with the disease presented. Breast lumps are the most common symptom of breast cancer. 83% of women in one study had breast lumps. In addition to breast lumps, other symptoms which appear on the breast include but are not limited to:
- Nipple abnormalities
- Skin abnormalities
Apart from the breasts, symptoms can also occur (to a much smaller extent) in the form of:
- Back pain
- Swellings in the armpit
- Neck lumps
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
Diagnosis is done by a breast exam as well as a thorough physical examination. The doctor uses these to determine if the symptoms are related to breast cancer or are caused by some other unrelated condition. In addition to the physical examination, doctors could require some diagnostic tests. These could include ultrasound, mammogram, biopsy and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Can Breast Cancer be Cured?
As with any other cancer, the possibility of surviving breast cancer depends on:
- timeliness of diagnosis
- the aggression of the cancer
- timeliness of treatment
If the cancer is detected at an early stage and treatment started quickly, the chances of surviving are high. However, the longer one takes in identifying and addressing the issue, the lower the possibility of survival.
Studies have shown that, on average, only 3% – 7% of patients in Nigeria present themselves to a doctor within one month of the onset of symptoms. There is an overall median delay of 9 months after presentation of symptoms before Nigerian women consult with a doctor. This is in contrast with the developed world. For instance, in Germany, the median time by which women typically present themselves to a doctor is 16 days after the onset of symptoms. This situation is largely responsible for the relatively low survivability of the disease amongst Nigerian women. The average lifespan in Nigeria after a diagnosis is between 9.5 months and 30 months.
When breast cancer is diagnosed, there are several options available to the patient. These include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In certain cases, more aggressive treatment options can be explored. One such option is a mastectomy which is the removal of the affected breast(s).
How Can I Guard Against Breast Cancer?
The easiest measure to take is limiting exposure to risk factors such as alcohol consumption.
As mentioned previously, early detection is critical to survival. The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women who are at high risk of developing the disease. These are typically women who have a family history of breast cancer or those who have been exposed to x-rays directed at their chest between the ages of 10 and 30. 3D mammograms are more accurate than 2D mammograms for detecting breast cancers though they are more expensive.
Finally, women also have the option of breast self-examination. This option does not help to significantly reduce deaths based on studies of the subject. However, self-examination is an option where mammograms are not readily available due to cost or accessibility.
Ultimately, a woman should be familiar with the appearance and feel of her breasts. Where you identify any abnormalities or any of the symptoms mentioned earlier, you should consult with a doctor immediately.
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