Some women assume that they have a high risk of contracting breast cancer because a close relative has been affected, but this might not be the case. Women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer by making simple lifestyle changes. Mr Ged Byrne, Breast surgeon, at the BreastHealth UK clinic, Spire Manchester Hospital, explains what women can do to protect their breast health.
“Only an estimated 5-10% of breast cancer cases are due to inherited genetic factors, so the importance of lifestyle in the development of the disease should not be underestimated,” says Mr Byrne. “Eating healthily, limiting your alcohol intake, and taking exercise can help women to protect themselves against breast cancer. Lifestyle decisions such as breastfeeding can also make a positive difference.”
Mr Byrne also emphasises the importance of self-checking: “The more a woman knows her own breasts, the better the chances of spotting a problem early,” he says.
“All women should be checking themselves regularly, at least once a month,” he advises. “Regular checking will help you to learn what is normal for you – some women are naturally lumpy and this is nothing to worry about.
“The key thing is to look out for changes. This may include a lump or thickening, which is different to the rest of the breast tissue, continuous pain in one part of the breast or armpit and skin changes such as puckering or dimpling. If you find anything worrying, you should see your GP straight away.”
Breast screening saves lives. It involves the regular examination of a woman’s breasts to determine whether anything has changed. Because screening happens at regular intervals, if cancer develops it is likely to be detected at a very early stage when it will be most responsive to treatment. The small changes in the breast which regular screening detects may be too small to be felt by the woman herself or by her doctor.
Not all women that are concerned about breast cancer have found a lump, in some like Alex Pope are anxious because a close friend or relative has been affected. These women may also be too young to participate in the National Screening Programme.
At only 34 Alex was already concerned about her own risks.
“My mother and grandmother both had breast cancer. I was concerned about developing breast cancer myself as I knew that some cancers are hereditary.”
She saw her GP, who referred her to an NHS consultant. However, as she had no symptoms, there was little that the hospital team was able to offer.
The NHS national screening programme uses mammography to look for abnormalities in the breasts but this is not able to detect very early stage changes and is only suitable for women over 45 (or thereabouts). With only two female relatives that had suffered from breast cancer, Alex was also considered unsuitable for genetic testing on the NHS.
“I went to the BreastHealth UK clinic to get a better understanding of my personal risk. The consultant showed me how to do a breast self-examination, which was really helpful.
“He also went through my lifestyle, family and medical history, and took a mouth swab to collect DNA for the new risk assessment test that the clinic offers.”
The BreastHealth Risk Assessment screens seven genetic markers known to affect an individual woman’s risk of breast cancer, and combines the results with information about medical and family history and lifestyle factors, to generate a personal risk score.
“The consultant explained that I am moderate risk, but not high risk because of my family history. That was worked out with the DNA test and questionnaire.”
Mr Byrne, who runs the Manchester BreastHealthUK clinic, explains that women do not need a GP referral to have a personalised Breast Health Risk Assessment. The results are given in personal consultation with a breast surgeon along with advice on diet and other lifestyle factors if relevant.
“Early detection and diagnosis are the most important factors in saving lives and ensuring a good outcome, “ he says.
Appointments can be made on 0800 085 6616.
For more information visit the BreastHealth UK website.