Cancer: My story, not my obituary (Part 2)
Sihlesenkosi Mkondo Correspondent
In this month of October, the Breast Cancer Month, this article unpacks more about the dreaded disease.
Knowledge is the mainstay of how one may handle themselves if and once diagnosed. It is a long journey which one walks alone.
What is breast cancer and what causes it?
Anyone with breast tissue is at risk of breast cancer and as such it is important that everyone becomes breast aware, taking note of any abnormalities in their breasts.
Early detection of abnormalities may be the difference between surgery and gruelling treatments to fight the cancer, and less traumatic treatments.
Breast cancer is a malignant tumor. Put simply, it is a collection of cancerous cells located in the breast tissue. Although breast cancer predominantly occurs in women, it can also affect men.
There is no real known cause of breast cancer except that it occurs when a cell’s DNA is damaged. There are risk factors, though, which are attributed to it, such as age, genetics, previous breast cancer/lump, taking excess alcohol, and obesity.
In Zimbabwe, it is the second largest cancer that affects women . . . the nurturers and carers of families. Globally less than two percent of men get breast cancer.
How do you detect breast cancer?
- To find out if your breast has lumps which might point to cancer, women especially are encouraged to do self-examination (looking and feeling the breasts often) or visit health facilities and be examined by qualified health personnel. (N.B. Not all tumors in the breast are cancerous).
- If a lump is discovered, then there are follow-up tests that have to be carried out to help detect cancer as listed below:
- a) This first type of test, known as a mammogram, is done by X-ray and is the initial screening for breast cancer. It produces images that can help the radiologist detect any lumps or abnormalities.
- b) If the results of the mammogram are suspicious then the radiologist will do an ultrasound scan which is a test that uses sound waves to help the doctor determine between a solid mass and a fluid-filled cyst.
- A more advanced and detailed test, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), may be recommended as a follow-up to a mammogram or ultrasound scan at times.
The results from these tests are taken to a surgeon who will then do a biopsy on the tissue that is suspicious. The biopsy is a process where the doctor draws out a sample of the tissue which is sent to the laboratory for analysis.
The results from the laboratory analysis show whether or not the cells are cancerous and hormone sensitive as well as the type of cancer.
Breast Cancer Treatment
Where there is presence of cancer then treatment plans are laid out taking into consideration factors such as the size of the lump, age, overall health, hormone sensitivities and even individual preferences.
The doctors can choose to take out the lump (lumpectomy) or to remove the whole breast (mastectomy) via surgery. Mastectomy is usually done where the cancer has spread to what are known as sentinel lymph nodes.
If cancer is noted in the lymph nodes generally in the armpit, then there are high chances of it spreading to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system.
To deal with the traumatic psychological effects of mastectomy, the breast can be reconstructed to give a more natural look to the patient.
Other Treatment Options
This can be the first line of treatment, but at times other treatment options listed below can be used before surgery or after:
- Radiation therapy — which involves using radiation doses daily where the tumor was for about a month, is specifically administered about a month post-surgery in an effort to annihilate any remaining cancer cells;
- Chemotherapy — involves administration of chemotherapy drugs in cycles of four or more given at three weekly intervals and aimed killing cancer cells where there is a high likelihood of reoccurrence and/or spread of the disease;
- Targeted drug therapy — these treat specific types of breast cancers and have adverse effects such as affecting the heart; and/or
- Hormone blocking therapy — is administered where the cancer is hormone sensitive being estrogen receptor (ER)-positive and/or progesterone receptor (PR)-positive. These types often recur and thus the medication is taken long-term for five- to 10-year periods. Hormone treatment may affect fertility.
Sihlesenkosi Mkondo is a researcher for Zimpapers Television Network and a Cancer Advocate