What is the most common type of cancer in the UK, killing about 12,000 people a year, who are predominantly over 50 years old and with no family history of the disease? I reckon you will have guessed I’m talking about breast cancer, but are you familiar with all the above facts? I’m already in the high risk age group, as 4 out of 5 breast cancers are found in women over 50 years old. But I didn’t realise that the risk of diagnosis goes up as you get older! The risk factor therefore increases year on year.
But the risk game-changer for me is the one about family history. I certainly didn’t know that most women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Did you? I’m pretty sure that, way-back-when, it was a known fact that risk of getting breast cancer was higher for women with family history. And that is probably still the case. But those unlucky women are far out-numbered now by the thousands of women every year who, like me, thought that they were less at risk because a female family member had not (yet) been diagnosed. Once you are over 50, cancer can strike indiscriminately.
But, help is at hand: literally in your own hands through monthly breast self-examination to check for changes in your breast look and feel. And also through the NHS breast screening programme, offered automatically to all women aged 50 to 70 every three years. After the age of 70 you can request appointments every 3 years. (A difficult NHS management and budget decision I assume, given that the evidence shows that risk increases with age.)
So why am I suddenly, outside of any awareness campaign, concerned and more informed? I can’t be alone in having friends who have been diagnosed: some lost their battle but most (3 out of 4 nationally) survive and are still alive 10 years later. I spoke to one such friend recently. I have also just performed in a play in which another female character had survived cancer diagnosis and treatment. And on TV, Jenny, a character in the popular drama series ‘Cold Feet’, is struggling with her diagnosis.
But on top of that, a few weeks ago, I went to my GP with symptoms including chest pains, and he asked me if and when I had last examined my breasts. I was a bit surprised by his question, but I had to admit that it had been some time ago. I vowed to check my breasts when I got home. In one of those lovely moments of synchronicity, the post waiting for me on the mat on my return included my regular, 3-year breast screening appointment.
I attended that appointment today at a mobile unit in a supermarket car park. The whole thing took around 20 minutes, including the X-ray test, which is, of course, the dreaded mammogram, which can spot cancers that are too small to see or feel. This requires each breast to be flattened between 2 plastic plates twice, and is extremely painful – but you only have to grit your teeth and swear under your breath for a matter of seconds each time. (I’m curious to know whether prostate cancer can be diagnosed by flattening men’s balls between 2 X-ray plates.) I’ll get my results in a few weeks. Fingers crossed that I get the all clear.
But have I given my breasts a self-examination check? Oh yes, aided and abetted by the Breast Sense® glove from Lloyds Pharmacy. The glove comprises 2 sheets, one of which contains a non-toxic liquid that increases touch sensitivity during a monthly, manual breast examination. The information leaflet recommends that self-examination should be performed with first the bare hands and then the Breast Sense ® glove. I have to admit that the liquid filled side of the glove, when pressed firmly against the skin, did help the fingers to glide more smoothly over the surface than when using a bare hand. But, not having become aware of any lumps and bumps, I can’t say whether the glove would help me to find anything better than with un-gloved fingers.
Both the NHS breast screening programme and regular breast self-examination are voluntary. You can choose not to attend a screening invitation, not to examine your own breasts for abnormalities. But why would you increase the risks that are already stacked against all women aged 50 and over? Show the disease the respect it deserves, and show some self-respect and self-love by regularly examining your breasts and choosing, not refusing to attend breast screening appointments. One or the other just might save your life.