October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is why you’ve probably seen lots of the color pink lately. This is the time of the year when many breast cancer organizations host fund raisers and/or activities to raise awareness.
In Hong Kong, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. According to the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation, the diagnosis of female breast cancer in Hong Kong tripled between 1993 and 2014. With this alarming statistic people often want to know what causes cancer, but it is unfortunately a complex disease, caused by a range of factors.
Factors that can increase the risk for breast cancer fall into two categories: environmental or genetic factors. Carcinogenic chemicals, such as benzene, asbestos and arsenic are environmental factors which can significantly increase your risk of cancer. However, it depends on the level of exposure. Genetic factors include a family history of breast cancer and/or being a carrier of one or both BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Both these genes significantly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. In other words, if you are a carrier of one of these genes you have an increased risk of breast cancer. Other risk factors listed by the Hong Kong Department of Health include:
- Little physical activity;
- Advancing age;
- Alcohol consumption;
- Early menarche (first period before 12 years old);
- Late menopause (after 55 years old);
- Obesity after menopause;
- Use of combined oral contraceptives;
- Undergoing hormonal replacement;
- A history of ovarian or endometrial cancer.
While several of those risk factors are not controllable, it is possible to minimise your risk of breast cancer by leading a healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy weight, regular exercise and limited or no alcohol consumption.
Early detection of cancer, including breast cancer, generally increases the survival rate. In Hong Kong, there are no population-based breast-screening campaigns. Therefore, women living in Hong Kong who suspect breast cancer or those who are at an increased risk are advised to consult their doctor to obtain more information on the benefits of regular screening tests.
Self-examination can also contribute to detecting breast cancer in the early stages. Self-examination is based on knowing your breasts and what the normal cyclical changes are. Some of the common signs you should look for include:
- (New) lumps/bumps in the breast;
- Changes in the shape, size or appearance of the breast;
- Dimpling of the breast skin;
- Discharge from one or both nipples;
- Inversion of the nipple (which was not inverted before);
- Flaking, peeling or flaking of the darkened skin (areola) around the nipple or the breast itself.
If you have any of these signs, you should see a doctor and seek professional advice.