Test for breast cancer

Barbara Stephenson with the digital tomosynthesis which creates a three-dimensional picture of the breast using X-rays.

“It won’t hurt. If it does, tell me,” says Barbara Stephenson, a mammographer at Melomed Hospital, in Tokai . She was right about the mammogram not being painful.

Ms Stephenson is one of many who stresses the importance of early diagnosis of breast cancer.

Many women will recall mammograms of years gone by. One woman describes it as the equivalent of lying on a cold garage floor and being run over by a truck. Eyes watering, breath gone, she counted the seconds and vowed “never again”.

And men should not snigger. Imagine having your crown jewels squashed in a vice?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – a time when we reflect on the illness and think about those who have faced the diagnosis. And most of us know someone who has.

The provincial Department of Health says breasts cancer is the most prevalent cancer among white and Asian women and the second most common cancer among black and coloured women.

They say, global statistics cite that one in eight women get breast cancer, in the Western Cape approximately one in 12.

With early detection, the chances of effective treatment are so much greater. Results in the Western Cape have been promising, with 40 percent of patients being diagnosed with early breast cancer and 60 percent with late-stage disease.

The Breast Health Foundation says South Africa has the highest male breast cancer rate in the world. The foundation’s Louise Turner says two out of every 100 people diagnosed with the disease are men.

In many cases, men do not seek help due to the stigma attached to breast cancer.

Dr Jenny Edge says while
men can also get breast cancer it is fairly uncommon. Dr Edge, who works with a team of specialists who discuss breast cancer cases, and works from Christian Barnard Hospital, says early detection is very important.

“The earlier a cancer is picked up, the better your outcome in most cases. Self-examination is very important, get to know your breasts. If you note any change, not just a lump, consult your doctor,” she says.

At the Women’s Centre, at Melomed, Ms Stephenson, who underwent mammography training through the Department of Health in 2005, provides a brochure describing three critical components of screening: self-examination in a mirror, in a shower and lying down; examination annually by a doctor; and a mammogram.

Dr Edge says it’s important to remember that a change in your breasts should not be ignored. Although not all changes are cancerous, a diagnosis should be obtained.

Your doctor will determine which imaging or tests you need to have. She says breast cancer can develop at any age, but the risk of developing it increases with age.

“Breast cancer tends to be more aggressive in younger women and slower growing in older women. However, that is not always the case. Each person is treated individually according to their histology,” says Dr Edge.

She says breast cancer is rare in young women in their 20s.

Ms Stephenson says she sometimes has women coming for a mammogram who say their breasts are painful.

Dr Edge says cancers are very rarely painful. “Hormonal changes and ill-fitting bras account for most mastalgia (breast pain).

“Apparently 50 percent of all women in Britain wear the wrong size bra. In general, women are much more comfortable with the correct size bra.”

Most medical aids cover the cost of mammograms. Rashaad Bazra, a consultant with Discovery Health says, depending on the plan, one mammogram each year will be covered as a prevention benefit, along with pap smears and prostate tests.

Bonitas Medical Aid reduced the minimum age for mammograms from 50 to 40 years on certain schemes.