IN the minds of some people breast cancer only affects one subset of people — older women, particularly those with a familial history of the disease. And while a large percentage of those affected by the disease fit this profile, obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Anna-Kay Taylor Christmas said the disease does not discriminate, noting that even some of the people that we least expect can be affected.
“Breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in women and the second most common cancer overall in the world. In Jamaica, breast cancer is the leading cancer among women followed by cervical cancer, and approximately 300 Jamaican women die annually from breast cancer,” Dr Taylor Christmas told All Woman.
While these known facts are reliable indicators of people generally affected by the disease, the ob-gyn said that there are a few other facts about breast cancer that you might not have known, including who is also susceptible.
Men can get breast cancer too
Breast cancer is rare in men, but men do get it too. A man's lifetime risk of breast cancer is about one in 1,000.
“This is because men also have breast tissue but their breast duct cells are less developed than those of women and they normally have lower levels of female hormones that affect the growth of breast cells,” Dr Taylor Christmas explained.
She said that male breast cancer is most common in older men, though it can occur at any age. Like women, men diagnosed with male breast cancer at an early stage have a good chance for a cure. Treatment of the disease typically involves surgery to remove the breast tissue.
Breast cancer is rare in teenagers
Developing breast cancer when you're a teenager is extremely rare, but it also does happen. Dr Taylor Christmas said that it's also uncommon in women in their 20s and 30s as the vast majority of breast cancers are diagnosed in women over the age of 50.
“It can be normal to feel lumps when breasts are developing, but these often disappear on their own. It's also normal in teenagers for breasts to feel uncomfortable and painful at times. If there is concern about how long breast symptoms in a teenager are lasting or how bad they are, take them to see a trusted doctor for reassurance,” she advised.
Breast cancer is more common in the left breast
“The left breast is five to 10 per cent more likely to develop cancer than the right breast,” Dr Taylor Christmas said.
The reason for this, she acknowledges, is not clear. She said what is a noted pattern is that patients with right-sided breast cancer is more likely to have a relative with breast cancer.
It can happen in both breasts at the same time
While rare, a person can develop cancer in both breasts at the same time. According to Dr Taylor Christmas, only about two to five per cent of all breast cancer cases occur in both breasts at the same time.
“Breast cancer in both breasts at once is more common among women who have the breast cancer gene mutations and among women with a strong family history of breast cancer.”
Shift work may increase the risk
Maybe where you work, but never was the times you work ever considered a cancer-inducing feature. However, Dr Taylor Christmas said that research has found that women who worked night shifts for 30 years or more were twice as likely to develop breast cancer. She notes, however, that no link was found between higher breast cancer risk and periods of night work which were shorter than 30 years.
Being a vegetarian doesn't seem to protect against breast cancer
“Various studies in different countries have found that women who follow a vegetarian dietary pattern did not experience a lower risk of breast cancer compared with non-vegetarians,” Dr Taylor Christmas shared.
She acknowledges, however, that a lower risk in vegans is possible, although more research is needed to definitively show this effect.
In Jamaica, because of the increase in the number of diagnoses annually, Dr Taylor Christmas said that our national screening guidelines currently include monthly self-breast examinations, clinical examinations annually, and mammography screening starting at age 40 and continuing as long as the woman is in good health.
Unfortunately, she said that as a country we are screening below 10 per cent of the eligible population and this contributes to increased mortality rates, as cancers are not detected as early as they could be in these cases.
Dr Taylor Christmas pointed out that approximately 60 per cent of breast cancer cases diagnosed in Jamaica are among women between the ages of 25 and 59.
“The median age for women diagnosed with breast cancer in Jamaica is 52 years old, which is eight years younger than the global average of 60. Having a risk factor does not mean a woman will get the disease because not all risk factors have the same effect. Some women will get breast cancer even without any other risk factors that they know of. In fact, up to 80 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Jamaica have no history of family members with the disease,” Dr Taylor Christmas shared.
Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include
•Being a woman
•Age over 50 years
•Having a strong family history of breast cancer (or ovarian cancer) in mother/sister/child
•Lack of exercise
•Never being pregnant