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Breast Cancer: Fact vs Fiction

Know the difference between fact and fiction when it comes to breast cancer? We asked breast and general surgeon DR GEORGETTE CHAN to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions.

Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer: Fact vs Fiction

MYTH: Only women over 40 years of age get breast cancer
TRUTH: Women under 40 can develop breast cancer too, but the incidence is low – they account for only five percent of all female breast cancers. Breast cancers in women under 40 tend to be slightly more aggressive (they grow faster, the tumours usually are of a higher grade and they are more often found to be hormone-receptor-negative subtypes). This means more of these young women require chemotherapy in addition to surgery.
This cohort of patients has special concerns around fertility issues, because the medications needed to treat breast cancer have an effect on having babies.

MYTH: Breast cancer only happens to women
TRUTH: Men can develop breast cancer too, as men do have a small amount of non-functioning breast tissue on the chest wall. However, male breast cancer is very rare; only one percent of all breast cancers diagnosed are in male patients. The men who are at risk for developing breast cancer are those who have a family history of it, those with a history of radiation to the chest wall (as treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for example), and those with high levels of oestrogen.

More on male breast cancer
Male breast cancer usually presents as a painless lump in the breast. Rarely, it could present itself as bloody nipple discharge. These men will then go through the same investigative procedures as women do, like breast ultrasound scans, mammograms (yes, men can do those too!) and breast biopsies. The staging and management of breast cancers in men are similar to those for breast cancers in women. Men also survive equally well as female patients – the prognosis is 90 to 99 percent for early-stage tumours.

MYTH: Breast cancers are always in the form of a lump
TRUTH: Symptoms of breast cancer are quite variable. The most common symptom is a painless lump in the breast, but breast cancer can also present itself as persistent breast swelling, continual skin thickening or puckering, or lumps in the armpit. Patients should also pay attention to nipple changes (such as a new onset of nipple retraction, persistent rash over the nipple or bloody discharge from the nipple).

MYTH: You don’t need mammograms if you lead a healthy lifestyle
TRUTH: Mammograms are still essential for breast health, no matter what. While it’s true that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by 10 to 20 percent, patients who lead healthy lifestyles can still develop the disease. A screening mammogram can detect cancer in the breast even before the tumour can be felt or cause any symptoms. An early diagnosis can reduce the need for major surgery, and hopefully avoid the need for chemotherapy as well. It’s recommended that women aged from 40 to 49 go for annual screening mammograms and, after turning 50, a mammogram once every two years.

#11-09 Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre
3 Mount Elizabeth
6836 5167 | georgettechan.com.sg

For more articles on breast cancer, see www.expatliving.sg/health
This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe here!
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