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Understanding Breast Cancer

Did you know? According to the 2014 National Cancer Registry (NCR) on cansa.org.za, next to non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is most common in women of all races, with a lifetime risk of 1 in 27 in South Africa.

Breast cancer can be frightening, but there is good news. Firstly, it is not always fatal. There has been a substantial increase in funding for research. As a result, survival rates have increased. The research has led to diagnostic advances, earlier detection, and a better understanding of this disease which plagues mostly women.

Breast cancer in more detail

It is a malignancy which is formed by abnormal and uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells in the breast. These cells divide more rapidly than healthy cells. In other words, they grow more quickly. As they grow, they form a lump or mass. Cells may spread (metastasize) through your breast to your lymph nodes or to other parts of your body. Which is why early detection is extremely important. Survival rates are higher after early diagnosis, it is important to check your breasts regularly and know what you are looking for.

How to examine your breasts at home for cancer

The first thing you need to know is not all breast lumps indicate cancer so don’t panic if you find one while doing a Breast Self-Examination (BSE). It is, however, important to get the lump checked out, especially if accompanied by other changes in your breasts or your underarm area.

If you find the following you should make an appointment with your doctor:


  • A breast lump or thickening that feels different from the surrounding tissue
  • A change in the size, shape or appearance of your breast
  • Changes to the skin over your breast, such as dimpling
  • Redness or pitting of the skin over your breast, like the skin of an orange


  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Peeling, scaling, crusting or flaking of the pigmented area of skin surrounding the nipple (areola) or breast skin

You should do a BSE at least once a month, preferably at the same time of day – often bath time is best because it is performed routinely every day. A breast examination should be done after your menstrual cycle.

Watch this easy-to-follow, step-by-step video, made by CANSA, on how to do a Breast Self-Examination.

Who is most at risk of getting breast cancer?

Here are some of the factors that could increase your risk of developing breast cancer. There is no cause for alarm until your doctor has examined you because you may have all these factors present in your life and never develop the disease.

  • Being female. 
  • Increasing age.
  • A personal history of breast conditions.
  • A personal history of breast cancer.
  • Radiation exposure.
  • Obesity.
  • Beginning your period younger than 12 years old.
  • Beginning menopause at an older age.
  • Having your first child any time after 30 years of age.
  • Having never been pregnant.
    • Post-menopausal hormone therapy – the risk of breast cancer decreases when women stop taking these medications.
  • Drinking alcohol. 
  • Smoking cigarettes – especially younger, pre-menopausal smokers.

5 ways you can reduce your chances of getting breast cancer

  1. The most important thing is doing regular self-examinations of your breasts. This won’t prevent breast cancer, but it will help you understand the normal changes your breasts go through and help you identify any unusual signs and symptoms as soon as possible.
  2. Ask your doctor about breast cancer screening. Breast cancer screening exams and tests, such as clinical breast exams and mammograms should never be neglected. Together, you and your doctor can decide which strategies are best for you. The rule of thumb is to have a mammogram once you reach 35 years of age and then one every 5 years after that.
  3. Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you do drink, limit the amount of alcohol to no more than one drink a day.
  4. Exercise 5 – 6 days of the week, choose a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight. Thirty minutes of brisk exercise on most days of the week keep you healthy and fit. It also helps keep your weight down and excess weight can cause problems. Remember that the number of calories expended in exercise must be more than the number of calories consumed. The Mediterranean diet, supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts, may reduce the risk of breast cancer as it focuses mostly on plant-based foods – fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, olive oil over butter, and fish instead of red meat.
  5. Limit postmenopausal hormone therapy. You may suffer from symptoms of menopause which make taking HRT necessary. Make sure your doctor has explained both the risks and benefits of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) as combination drugs may increase the risk of breast cancer.

While this is a frightening subject, remember – knowledge is power. If you want to find out more about breast cancer, please visit Cansa Women’s Health

If you have any concerns whatsoever about the health of your breasts, whether you are male or female, please do not hesitate to contact your nearest Lenmed Hospital and make an appointment with our healthcare professionals today.

For more information please contact:

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA)
Telephone: +27 80 022 6622
Email: info@cansa.org.za

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.