Breast cancer: how to protect yourself

Breast cancer: how to protect yourself

According to the Breast Health Foundation, 70% of all breast cancer is found through self-checks. Proper regular self-examination is key to early detection and effective treatment. Here’s your guide. “Picking up a diagnosis early can save lives,” says Catherine Gay, advanced specialist at Fedhealth Clinical Risk. “It is important that members know their family history, do regular self-examinations, go for mammograms and speak to their doctor about any concerns that they may have,” she continues.

Breast cancer checks start with knowing the signs

PinkDrive promote cancer risk awareness in South Africa, and is the Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) behind the country’s first mobile mammography unit. Before a physical self-check, they suggest you look out for the following signs:

  • Nipple discharge or bloody discharge
  • Swelling of all or part of the breast
  • Pain or tenderness in the breast
  • Skin irritation or dimpling
  • A lump in the breast
  • A lump or swelling in either armpits

How to do a breast cancer self-examination

Follow these steps for a thorough breast self-exam, easily done in the shower:

For women:

  1. Before you get into the shower, stand in front of a mirror and have a careful look for changes to any parts of your breasts, like the shape, size or discharge.
  2. While standing in the shower, place your arm behind your head and use the fingertips of your other hand to make gentle but firm circular movements from the bottom to the top of your breast, including the armpit. Move systematically to cover the whole area, and use shower gel or soap to help your fingertips glide smoothly to detect any abnormalities. Keep your hand flat on your breast throughout the exam. What to feel for:
    • Lumps
    • Thickening
    • Any abnormal changes
  3. For a self-examination lying down, follow the same steps, propping a pillow under one shoulder for extra comfort.

Repeat this on the other breast.

For men:

  1. Before you get into the shower, stand in front of a mirror with your arms to your side to tighten the chest muscles, and inspect yourself for changes in shape or size, or any discharge from nipples.
  2. While standing in the shower, place one arm behind your head and use the fingertips of your other hand to make gentle but firm circular movements from the bottom to the top of the tissue covering your pectoral muscle, including the armpit. Move in a figure of ‘6’ to systematically cover the whole area. Use shower gel or soap to help your fingertips glide smoothly to detect any abnormalities. Keep your hand flat on your breast throughout the exam. What to feel for:
    • Lumps
    • Thickening
    • Any abnormal changes
  3. For a self-examination lying down, follow the same steps, propping a pillow under one shoulder for extra comfort.

Repeat this on the other breast.

If you detect any abnormalities or are unsure, consult your GP. They will determine whether you should be booked for a mammogram for further investigation.

A survivor’s story

This is how the cancer journey started for Cindy van Wyk, 52, when she detected what would later be diagnosed as early stage 2 breast cancer.

The self-check
“With my right arm behind my head, my fingers felt the tissue – no lumps or bumps, until I suddenly got to a big, soft, tender lump in the bottom right quadrant of my breast. My initial thought was ‘nothing to worry about – it’s just my friend, The Cyst’. I ignored it because, in my mind, cancer lumps were hard and not painful. But the pain became worse, so I went to see a doctor.”

The diagnosis
“I went for a mammogram, sonar and two emergency biopsies, and I left the consulting rooms with an envelope full of images and a sticker that read ‘Rad 5 classification’ – suspected cancer. Three days later I received the final diagnosis – breast cancer, early stage 2.”

The treatment journey
“A week later, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy, and a month later I began red devil chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiotherapy.”

A courageous success
“That was five years ago and I am a survivor. My scars on my chest tell a story of courage, hope and faith. They are a reminder of when life tried to break me but failed.”

Van Wyk encourages women and men not to avoid self-examination or a mammogram out of fear of the unknown. “Never ignore lumps and bumps. Early detection prolongs life,” she says.

What kind of risk cover can help?

“Breast and prostate cancer are the top two cancers in terms of frequency that affect the scheme,” shares Gay. Between June 2018 and June 2019, Fedhealth reported 276 breast cancer patients registering on the oncology programme, and in 2018, the total cost for specialised drugs for 14 individuals requiring specialised treatment for breast cancer was over R1.4-million. “It is important to emphasise that this is not only a diagnosis that affects women,” says Gay.

“A mammogram – when an X-ray of the breast is taken with a device that compresses and flattens the breast – can help a health professional decide whether a lump is a gland, a harmless cyst, or a tumour,” says Gay. To learn more about how to top-up your medical cover, click here.

Read here for more breast cancer myths we’ve busted, including how you can manage your risk.

Sanlam Reality members get up to 30% off risk products. Speak to a financial planner about the right risk cover for you.

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