Women in Northern Ireland are being urged to be breast aware and make simple lifestyle changes in a bid to reduce their risk of breast cancer.
The advice from the Public Health Agency (PHA) comes as Breast Cancer Awareness Month gets under way in October.
Survival rates for the disease are improving thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatment. However, breast cancer is still the second most common form of cancer among women in Northern Ireland; after skin cancer. Each year, 1,000 new cases are diagnosed locally and over 300 women die from the disease.
According to the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, survival from breast cancer in Northern Ireland compares favourably with other countries. For patients diagnosed during 2003-2007 the relative survival rate was 95% after one year. The five-year survival rate is 83% which is much better than the 76% seen in patients diagnosed in 1993-1997.
But research shows that while a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer is often down to factors beyond her control, such as genes, family history, and increasing age, steps can be taken to reduce the risk.
“Prevention and early detection are key to saving lives,” said Dr Adrian Mairs, Consultant in Public Health, PHA.
“It is important to be breast aware and know how your breasts look and feel at different times of the month in order to detect any changes that are not normal for you. This can be done in the shower, bath or when dressing.”
“Medical professionals no longer recommend a set way to check your breasts although it is important to feel all parts including the nipple and in and around the armpit.”
Women should look out for changes in appearance including size, puckering, dimpling or veins that stand out more than usual; any feelings of pain or discomfort in either the breast or armpit, particularly if it is new and persistent; any lumps or thickening that feels different from the other breast, as well as any swelling or lumps under the armpit or around the collarbone; and any changes to the nipple including shape, discharge, bleeding or a rash.
“Most changes are harmless but all should be checked by a GP. If the change is due to cancer, earlier detection may mean simpler and more successful treatment,” added Dr Mairs.
“It is also important for women to make an informed choice about attending for breast screening. Screening mammograms are routinely offered every three years to women in Northern Ireland aged between 50 and 70.” Older women can continue to request to attend for breast screening by contacting their local breast screening unit.
Lifestyle changes can also help reduce a woman’s risk of developing the disease, including cutting down on alcohol, eating a low fat diet, being a healthy weight and taking regular exercise. According to a global study of women’s drinking behaviour, the more drink consumed the greater the risk of developing breast cancer.
“Scientists have pointed to the effect alcohol has on a woman’s sex hormones as one way it may increase the risk. When you drink, the level of hormones in the body changes, including the female sex hormone oestrogen which can stimulate the growth of breast cancers,” explained Dr Mairs.
Dr Mairs continued: “To be on the safe side, it is best for women not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week. There is good evidence that post menopausal women who are overweight have an increased risk of breast cancer, although in pre-menopausal women being overweight reduces the risk of breast cancer. Once you are post-menopausal, your oestrogen levels are linked to the amount of body fat you have. The more fat, the higher your oestrogen levels are likely to be,” said Dr Mairs.
Dr Mairs continued: “Eating less fat is a good way to keep your weight down and taking the recommended 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, at least five days a week is not only good for you maintaining a healthy weight, it is beneficial for overall health.”
For further information Contact PHA Press Office, Ormeau Avenue Unit on 028 9031 1611.
Notes to the editor
1. Figures taken from the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR) publication: “Monitoring are of female breast cancer patients in Northern Ireland diagnosed 2006”, published in 2010.
2. Breast Cancer Awareness Month runs from the 1st – 31st October 2010.