Over 17,000 Australian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every single year. That’s a shocking 48 individual diagnoses a day, making it the most common cancer found in women. Breast cancer is also the second most common of cause cancer death. And sadly, these numbers are only expected to increase in the year to follow.
These are sobering statistics.
For women in their 20s (or younger) it’s incredibly rare to be diagnosed with this pervasive disease. Around 85 women each year are diagnosed with breast cancer while in their 20s. So what’s the goal here? (Besides curing cancer of course). It’s not only to educate but to ultimately raise awareness, because early detection is vital.
In the lead up to breast cancer awareness month in October, it’s important for us to start a meaningful dialogue surrounding this devastating disease. We sat down and spoke with oncologist, Dr Belinda Kiely, about self-exams, awareness and everything in between.
Do you see typically see more patients this time of year?
Yes. The focus on breast cancer in the media during October as well as increased breast cancer related community events definitely raises awareness. Many women will be encouraged to go and have that mammogram they’ve been putting off and talk to their girlfriends, mothers and sisters about when they last had a check.
Why are women in their 20s not as aware of the risk of breast cancer?
Breast cancer is extremely rare in women in their 20s. Often when breast cancer occurs in a very young woman it is in the context of strong family history of breast cancer and often these women carry a genetic mutation that predisposes them to breast cancer.
What can women in their 20s proactively do?
If women want to know what their personal risk of breast cancer is there is a good online risk calculator I recommend. It is called iPrevent. It requires women to enter their medical history, family history, lifestyle and reproductive factors. It then provides a personalised report that women can then take to their GP to work out how they can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer and what screening, if any, is recommended.
Do you recommend women perform regular breast checks at home?
Yes. I encourage women to be aware of the normal appearance and feel of their breasts so they will pick up any changes early, and see their doctor for further evaluation.
How often should we be checking?
I don’t recommend any particular frequency, it is just important to look at and feel your breasts regularly to get used to the normal appearance and feel.
What is the best way to check your breasts?
There is no right or wrong way, you just need to get used to feeling them and remember to check the armpits as well. I don’t want women to avoid checking their breasts because they fear not knowing the “right way” to do it.
Is there anything particular we should be looking out for?
New lumps or swellings, skin discolouration or redness, skin thickening or dimpling, nipple inversion, nipple discharge.
If you find a lump or anything you feel is suspicious what should your next steps be?
See your local doctor who can examine your breasts and arrange appropriate imaging, biopsy and referral to a breast surgeon as needed.
How many women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day in Australia?
Approximately 45. It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and affects 1 in 8 women.
How old is the youngest patient you have ever diagnosed/treated with breast cancer?
I had one patient aged 20, but this is very unusual. Most women are diagnosed over age 50, but approximately 25% are diagnosed under age 50. I treat quite a lot of women aged in their 30s and 40s and most of these are diagnosed after feeling a lump in their breast. I think it is important to recognise that women under 50 can get breast cancer. Young women should not ignore any changes in their breasts.
What is the survival rate of breast cancer currently in Australia?
In 2010–2014, individuals diagnosed with breast cancer had a 91% chance of surviving for 5 years. The good news is that breast cancer survival rates have improved significantly in the last 30 years due to earlier detection and new effective treatments. These new treatments have been proven safe and effective in large clinical trials like those run by "Breast Cancer Trials" in Australia and New Zealand. I am proud to be a member of Breast Cancer Trials because clinical trials help give women access to new treatments and new treatments save lives.
Can you remember one story of survival that stands out for you the most?
There have been many patients who have done a lot better than expected. One patient that springs to mind is a woman who sadly died from her breast cancer earlier this year aged only 33. She had incurable breast cancer for the last 10 years but with treatment she remained well, continued working for most of this time and saw her two sons start school. This would not have been possible 30 years ago when many of the treatments that she received had not yet been discovered. I am hopeful that in another 30 years there will be many more advancements and new treatments and women will be living even longer or perhaps being cured.
If there is one message you wish to tell females about breast cancer awareness, what is it?
Be breast aware and get used to looking at and feeling your breasts regularly.
So with that in mind let’s set up healthy behaviours that last a lifetime. At home self-care exams are one of those behaviours. They’re free, can be done in the comfort of your own home and only take five minutes. Here’s the five simple steps.
Step 1: Observe at your breasts in a mirror. You’re looking for dimpling, swelling, rash, bumps and discharge.
Step 2: Raise your arms and look for any similar changes to the breast, again dimpling, swelling, rash, bumps and discharge.
Step 3: Then lay down and use your first three fingers to feel the tissue, keep your fingers flat and together using a circular motion.
Step 4: Keep following this pattern to cover the entire breast, beginning at the nipple, moving in larger and larger circles.
Step 5: Lastly, feel your breasts while standing or sitting. Many women do this in the shower, when the skin is slightly slippery. Cover your entire breast, using the same hand movements described in Step 3 and 4.
Remember, if you find anything suspicious see your doctor for a professional opinion. If you’d like to find any more information on Breast Cancer Awareness Month you can check here and you can donate here.
Interested in more health news? We’ve also asked a biochemist about how to get happier hormones in your 20s here.
Illustration credit: Rosa Friend for The Urban List