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02 Dec 2021

SPECIAL FEATURE: This Breast Cancer Awareness Month learn how to increase your chances of early detection

A look at everything to do with breast health as Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close

Mammography service to commence in North West

Know the signs and symptoms of breast cancer and learn how to check your breasts

Breast cancer remains one of the most prevalent forms of cancer in Ireland. Journalist Siobhán McNamara looks at what we can all do to increase our chances of early detection and improve the outcome of a breast cancer diagnosis.

None of us ever want to hear the words, ‘you have cancer.’ But that is the reality for almost 45,000 people in Ireland each year, according to figures issued by the Irish Cancer Society.

Breast cancer - which can also affect men - is the most commonly found cancer in women, with an estimated 3,704 cases diagnosed each year. Overall, it is the third most common cancer behind prostate cancer (3,890 cases each year) and various forms of skin cancer (13,311 new cases per year).

The good news is that there is a lot of ongoing research into breast cancer, with new treatments being developed all the time. 

Sadly, not everyone will survive the disease. But there are things we can do now that could lead to a better outcome in the event of a breast cancer diagnosis down the line.

The message from the Irish Cancer Society this Breast Cancer Awareness Month is ‘Care for your pair.’

The idea is to regularly check your breasts, and to discuss breast health with at least two other people.

Breast Cancer Ireland is reminding people that the first line of defence against Breast Cancer is to know the signs.

Both of these campaigns underline the importance of that much repeated message - check your breasts regularly and know what is normal for you.

Symptoms

When we think of breast cancer detection, we tend to think of finding a lump. But there are a number of other symptoms associated with the disease. While they could be caused by something else, the Irish Cancer Society’s advice for anyone, male or female, of any age, is to consult their GP if they experience even one of the following:

-A change in the size or shape of one breast 

-A change in the skin, like puckering, dimpling (like orange peel) or redness 

-A change in the nipple shape or direction, like a pulled in or flattened nipple 

-An unusual discharge (liquid) from one or both of your nipples

-A change on or around the nipple, such as a rash or flaky or crusted skin 

-Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone 

-A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast

-Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit 

-Any change in how your breast normally looks and feels.

How to check your breasts

Carrying out a breast check might seem daunting or overwhelming the first time, but it is really all about understanding what is involved and establishing a regular routine. One suggestion is to do it on the day each month.

Breast Cancer Ireland has developed an app which includes a gentle monthly reminder. The app is called Breast Aware and it is free on iTunes and Android platforms.

Advice for self-examination includes:

-With the pads/flats of your three middle fingers, check the entire breast and armpit area pressing down with light, medium, and firm pressure. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, hardened knot, or any other breast changes.

-Visually check using a mirror: Inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead. ok for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match—few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.

-When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently covering the entire breast area and armpit. A good idea is to work in a clockwise motion from the nipple outwards in increasing circles. Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.

Self-examination plays an important part in detecting breast cancer. However, screening can detect cancer long before a lump can be felt, so it is very important to attend if you are eligible for BreastCheck. 

On saying that, screening is currently only offered to women over the age of 50. There is a growing number of cases of breast cancer in younger women. According to Breast Cancer Ireland, 23% (almost one in four) of new cases in Ireland each year occur in women aged between 20 and 50. Therefore, self-examination remains crucial to early detection, especially in younger women.

Diagnosis

If you find anything unusual, don’t delay in contacting your GP who will in turn refer you to the next stage, which will most likely include a mammogram (breast x-ray). It is particularly important to inform your GP of all changes or symptoms, even if they are not all breast related, and to mention any family history of breast cancer. 

If breast cancer is diagnosed, a tailored treatment plan will be put in place. This may be carried out in Donegal, or it might involve travelling further afield. There are so many variables with different types of cancer, treatments, other health issues etc that no two cases are the same. 

Support

The road through cancer will of course be difficult, fraught with worry and anxiety, and side effects of sometimes quite harsh treatments. 

Fortunately, there are a number of organisations offering support to cancer patients.

The Irish Cancer Society has a lot of information about cancer, diagnosis and treatment, as well as details of practical supports on its website cancer.ie

It also operates a support helpline manned by volunteers who themselves have been through cancer treatment. Cancer nurses are also available for a chat. The helpline can can reached at 1800 200 700 or by emailing support@cancer.ie

The Daffodil Centres - including one in Letterkenny University Hospital - offer a safe place to chat with cancer nurses or volunteers, and to get advice or just a listening ear.

Cancer Care West provides professional community-based practical and emotional support services, free of charge, to anyone affected by cancer of any kind. Practical and emotional support for patients and their families in Donegal and Galway includes accommodation, counselling and much more. Further details can be found at cancercarewest.ie or by calling 091 540040 for information and support.

Get involved

There are a number of ongoing fundraising campaigns to support breast cancer research and patients. 

Breast Cancer Ireland hold an annual autumn raffle, as well as the Great Pink Run which takes place virtually this Saturday, October 16. To register or to see other ways to support breast cancer research, visit breastcancerireland.com

The Irish Cancer Society’s Care For Your Pair campaign is being supported by Centra, with donations in stores nationwide. People can also text PINK to 50300 to donate €4. More information on a range of fundraising campaigns and ideas can be found at cancer.ie

Donations to Cancer Care West can be made via https://www.cancercarewest.ie/donate/

The organisation also welcomes fundraising for its support services, including those in Donegal.

These are just some of the many ways to support breast cancer patients and ongoing research. There are many other worthy charities and organisations offering support and services locally and nationally.

All support helps, but don’t forget the most important message this Breast Cancer Awareness Month - know your breasts, know the symptoms and know what is normal for you.

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