Be clear on cancer

There’s no doubt that everyone knows something about ‘The Big C’ and sadly it is inevitable that most people will know at least one person in their lifetime that has had cancer.

However, the good news is that, as research continues, new treatments are developed that are helping people to beat cancer every day. Most importantly, knowing the symptoms and early diagnosis increase the chances of surviving cancer.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, and surprisingly, the biggest risk factor, after gender, is age. Did you know that over 80% of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50 and, of those diagnosed, a third of them are over the age of 70?

Statistics show that African and Caribbean women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK have poorer relative survival rates than White women. While the reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, the most likely cause could be delays in diagnosis. Think about it for one minute… would your mother, grandmother or aunt, for example, ever openly discuss a health problem, and would she even know what signs to look for?

We need to break down the barriers, and start talking about breast cancer with the older women in our families. The sooner a patient is diagnosed and treatment started, the better the chance they have of beating breast cancer… so that means women need to know what signs and symptoms to look out for, where to go and who to speak to.

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Here’s living proof that there is life after breast cancer.

A fit and healthy mum of two grown-up sons, Audrey had no previous family history of cancer, but was quite vigilant about her health and checked her breasts regularly. It was during one of these self-examinations that she felt a hard lump under her right breast that didn’t feel normal, and went to see her GP as soon as possible.

Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was in complete disbelief,” she recalls, “It felt like the doctor was speaking to someone else, I was numb with shock and confusion.” Getting over the initial shock, Audrey was determined to fight the cancer, as the doctors had advised her that the cancer had been caught early and she could be treated.

Audrey was offered a mastectomy to remove the tumour and had reconstructive surgery immediately afterwards, as she was keen to get back to some normality as soon as possible. The operation was followed by a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which Audrey responded well to.

Years later, Audrey has discovered a new lease of life: “I have a quality of life that I didn’t have before. It takes a life changing event to make you realise how important life is.”

Audrey stresses, “It’s so important to check your breasts regularly, and if I could give one piece of advice it would be… never ignore your health, even if you have the slightest doubt or symptom, don’t ignore it. Go and get it checked out.”


We caught up with Charmaine Case – a Macmillan Breast Clinical Nurse specialist, working on the front line with patients, to find out more about breast cancer…

Q: What are the symptoms of breast cancer that women should be looking for?

A: Most people assume that the only thing to look for is a lump in the breast, but actually the other possible signs of breast cancer that you should look for also include:

• Changes in the nipples

• Changes to the skin of your breast

• Changes in the shape or size of your breast

• Pain or tenderness in your breast or armpit

Q: What treatments are available?

A: Treatment largely depends on the type of breast cancer the patient has. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are all used to treat these cancers. A specialist would advise of the best treatment plan.

If picked up early, the treatment for women over 70 years can be relatively straightforward. Many women won’t even need to stay overnight in hospital because surgery could take the form of a day case procedure.

Q: Why do women from African and Caribbean communities delay in going to their GP?

A: There are so many issues, fears and taboos that are ingrained into our culture. Some of these are based on respect and maintaining a woman’s dignity.

They are also a generation that don’t like going to the doctor; they feel that talking about cancer is almost tempting fate; they don’t want to be a burden, or they simply think that things will get better in their own time.

If the younger generations don’t talk to their mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts about the symptoms, then the women at greater risk will not take action.

We need to change all of these attitudes, including the belief that cancer is an automatic death sentence. That is no longer the case, and the fact is the sooner you go to the doctor and receive treatment the better your chances of survival.

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