Staying Abreast of Cancer

In adult women, breasts are organs with the primary function of producing milk to feed their new-born child. Like most organs, breasts are susceptible to cancer, and this form of cancer is a leading cause of death in women worldwide.

Breast cancer occurs when the cells in the breast grows abnormally. Nearly 90% of such cancers begin in the ducts, while the rest develop within the breast tissue itself. The formation of tumours continue to grow and spread, changing the breast structure, damaging healthy cells and causing the organ to fail.

In the early stages, minor symptoms may become noticeable, such as a small lump in the breast. Other warning signs of this condition include a bloody nipple discharge, nipples becoming inverted, and the formation of new dimples. If left untreated, the cancer may begin fungating (break through the skin) and spread to other parts of the body, such as the bone, liver, lungs and brain.

While this condition is associated with women, men also have small amounts of breast tissue. Although the risk is much lower than that of women, there is still a risk of developing breast cancer.

Ng Char Hong
Ng Char Hong

Protecting Yourself

The exact cause of breast cancers still unknown. However, doctors have ascertained several risk factors. Some known factors include genetics, having children after the age of 30 and having high estrogen levels.

While there is no way to prevent cancer from occurring, early detection is important. Treatment is more effective in the earlier stages. However, a commonly held myth is that if there is no pain, there is no cancer prevents patients from seeking help earlier.

Healthcare professionals can teach women how to check their breasts for lumps, while specialised tests such as mammograms can detect cancer that has not even formed lumps yet. Due to their effectiveness in screening for cancer, most Malaysian women aged 40 and above are encouraged to undergo screening once every two years.

If the mammogram suggests that a tumour may be present, specialists can follow up with ultrasound scans to confirm the existence of cancer.

Overcoming Cancer

Once cancer has been diagnosed, surgeons and oncologists work together to treat or manage it. Treatment for breast cancer depends on the stage of the cancer, age and health of the patient.A combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy is usually used to cure the condition.

Depending on the size of the cancer in relation to the breast, surgeries such as whole breast removal (mastectomy) or lump removal (lumpectomy) can be carried out to remove the tumour. Breast surgeons dealing with cancer have advanced knowledge of the breast, and usually save more of the breast than a non-specialised surgeon. Additionally, they can carry out reconstruction surgery to reshape the breasts after a procedure.

After a surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy will be administered to ensure that there are no remaining cancer cells in the body.

There is also a new procedure at Ramsay Sime Darby Health Care known as Intraoperative Radiotherapy (IORT), where radiotherapy is administered during the surgery. Patients who meet the criteria and choose undergo this form of therapy do not need to undergo the usual radiotherapy sessions after the procedure.

Motherly Concerns

Breasts play an important role in motherhood, so having breast cancer may distress those that wish to be mothers. Patients who are diagnosed with cancer at a young age are recommended to freeze the ovaries before treatment to preserve future fertility. After cancer treatment, it is recommended for them to wait five years, following the completion of hormone therapy, before attempting to conceive.

For women who discovered that they have cancer while pregnant, the situation is more complicated. In addition to treatment, the baby needs to be protected. In these cases, a team of doctors, often including an oncologist, paediatrician and obstetrician will design a unique treatment plan suited to the patient’s needs, which depend on the stage of cancer, her health in general and the stage of the pregnancy.

Anaesthetic, hormones and radioactivity pose significant risks for unborn children, thus surgery, hormone therapy and radiotherapy are usually not recommended unless absolutely necessary. If a mother is in the early stage of her pregnancy, they are usually asked to wait until their 14th week of pregnancy, where the baby’s limbs and organs have been formed, before chemotherapy is administered. In the late stages of pregnancy, the care team may recommend that a patient give birth before treatment. Each case is unique and treatment is given based on the individual situation. After treatment, a patient can begin breastfeeding and caring for her child as normal, under the guidance of the medical team.

The aim of cancer treatment is meant to eliminate cancer within the body, allowing patients to prolong their life and ensure the best quality of life. For the best results, early detection is vital, so never dismiss lumps in your breasts as nothing to worry about!