October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness of breast cancer around the world, and helping raise funds for the charities that fight it. You might have seen pink ribbons - the symbol of the movement - or in Dubai you might have heard mention of the Pink Caravan event, which provides screening facility access to women all around the UAE. Breast cancer is something that all women should educate themselves about, in order to as stay healthy and well as possible.

  • Who is affected by breast cancer?
    • Breast cancer is sadly the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer around the world, according to the World Health Organisation. It affects women in all countries, regardless of economic background or genetic make-up, and the exact cause is still unknown. However, the good news is that, if caught in time, it is very treatable. Death rates from breast cancer have been falling since the 90s, thanks in part to better screening, more treatment options, and more early detection.

      • When should I get a check-up?
        • The biggest risk group is women aged above 50 years, though it’s a good idea to perform your own examinations and get a screening even if you are younger. The American Cancer Society recommends women aged 45 and over should get a mammogram once a year, every year. A mammogram x-ray machine checks your breasts for anything unusual, and can be performed at many hospitals and clinics in the UAE. It’s a simple procedure and is normally done in around 30 minutes, plus consultation time with your doctor once the results have been received. It is the best way to catch cancer in its early stages – in some cases, it can diagnose the condition upto two years before same cancer could be spotted by a physical exam.

          • Self-care
            • It’s really important to regularly check your breasts for any changes. Many women find the best time to be after a bath or shower, or lying down in bed. Make sure you check the whole breast area up to the armpit, and use light, medium and firm pressure. You should check if they look different as well as feeling different, for example if there is any puckering or dimpling of the skin, or for any discharge or rashes. If you feel any discomfort or pain, or find a lump or thickening in a certain area, you should seek professional medical advice as soon as possible. Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean you have cancer – but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Try and do a self-exam at least once a month.

              • Treatment
                • There have never been more treatment options than now in the fight against cancer, and it’s worth knowing there are over 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the US alone. If caught early, surgery or localised radiation therapy may be recommended. A lot of women will have both. Breast-conserving surgery will be the preferred option where possible, with the radiation therapy being utilised to lower the chances that the cancer could return. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to destroy any remaining cancer cells, with external beam radiation the most commonly used. This is like a stronger-than- normal x-ray, and the procedure is painless and very short – only a few minutes, with some set-up time beforehand. Typical duration for the treatment is 5-6 weeks, though doctors now are moving towards a more intense treatment time set across 3 weeks only. This can have the advantage of less side effects – always a good thing.

                  • More advanced stages
                    • If the cancer is at a more advanced stage then chemotherapy may be needed. This form of treatment normally lasts 3 to 6 months, and unfortunately does lead to the more well- known side effects like hair loss. Hormone therapy might also be used after surgery or treatment, to reduce the chances of the cancer returning. These hormones might be taken for upto 5 years. There are some side effects such as mood swings and hot flushes – but the benefits of taking the hormones do outweigh the risks.

                      • Staying well
                        • Talking about cancer can feel alarming or scary - but the more educated we all are, the higher the chance of catching the condition early, and of getting successful treatment. If cancer is only located in the breast when diagnosed, the 5-year survival rate is an incredible 99%. Just remember to self-examine, book regular screenings, and live a healthy lifestyle as far as possible. In the UK alone, an estimated 27% of breast cancer cases are linked to lifestyle factors – so this shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Have lots of fruit and vegetables in your diet, exercise regularly, and don’t smoke. If you are overweight, it’s a very good idea to try and reach a more healthy size. If you drink alcohol, make sure you don’t drink too much – no more than one drink per day, according to the Mayo Clinic.

                          • Keeping positive
                            • If you or someone close to you is diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s important to know that you are not alone. There are many support groups for all stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Breast cancer affects many of us - but it needn’t become a life sentence.

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