Tuesday, 9 October 2012

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month

If you don't know that this month is Breast Cancer Awareness month then frankly I think you must either be living under a rock or somewhere without any TV, media or internet connection.

You certainly can't escape it on Facebook where loads of women are playing a game with their status suggesting that they are pregnant and what food they might be craving. (They are not pregnant, the status is all worked out on a formula based on their birth date and age). Thank goodness this didn't happen a few years back when my husband and I were undergoing infertility treatment because back then every pregnancy announcement felt like a stab to the heart. Eight years ago in October things were very different for me.... 
(cue the wavy lines)

What do you think are the early indications that you might be pregnant – apart from the second blue line on the home pregnancy test I mean?

Morning sickness might kick in for some straight away, tiredness is a good one but most symptoms vary from woman to woman. Both my sister and my sister-in-law had told me changes in your breasts are a good sign. First some gentle swelling and then the skin on the nipple darkens up pretty quickly. As it wasn't financially expedient to buy a pregnancy test each month I found myself regularly checking for signs of nipple darkening as I got close to my period.  So there I was in the shower checking over my breasts and yes they had swollen and they were felling tender but then I suddenly realise that what used to be an area of slight bumpy-ness is a lump rather larger than usual.  It’s ok I told myself, I am not worried.  I mean how often do I do a proper breast exam anyway? I thought I'd just keep an eye on it.

When I first realised that getting pregnant wasn’t going to be as easy as falling off a log I started to see pregnant women everywhere.  Adverts and the supermarket were the worst.  How come I always got the trolley with the ‘Clear Blue’ advert stuck on the end? It stared at me up and down every isle – “come, come and pee on me!” But the week I found the lump it had an added twist - it was October and every marketer must have thought ‘lets give a plug for a cancer relief charity’.  A very notable cause and one that I am proud to support but why did it have to be that month?  I had four different mailings that week that included a letter begging for more funds for breast cancer research.  I wanted to help, really I did, but that week I all I wanted was to bury my head in the sand and pretend that the lump wasn’t there.  But it was.  I found my hand going to it, just to check, with increasing frequency, and every time it seemed bigger.

What really did it for me was a ‘Sex and the city’ viewing.  In this particular episode Samantha has decided to have breast augmentation. She has decided she needs the breasts of a younger woman to keep her man's attention.  When she is at the consultation the surgeon notices an abnormal area of tissue and sends her off for screening. The episode ends with her having to tell the other girls that she has cancer. Samantha’s character seemed so strong – her body was her own temple and she was pleased when someone wanted to worship at it, she was daring and brave and the only values important to her seemed to be her own. She lived life by her own rules and I admired that, and now she had breast cancer and that really scared me.  Thanks to Samantha (and some pressure from my family when I finally admitted what was wrong), I made an appointment the next day to see the doctor, who referred me to the hospital’s breast cancer clinic.

If you find a ‘discrete’ breast lump at 30+ you should, according to government guidelines at that time, expect to be seen by specialist within a two-week period.  Having not heard about any appointment date after 1 week I start hassling. After numerous phone calls I find out that I have been put on a waiting list and can expect to see a consultant in 10 to 12 weeks.  I’m expecting to hear from the fertility clinic that we can start the IVF treatment in 5 weeks time!  I could finish up with a double whammy here, cancer and no fertility treatment, or worse, having to decide between a termination and treatment or keeping a long wished for pregnancy.

So I hassled, and I hassled and I hassled and two weeks later I walked out of the breast clinic having heard what I now consider to be some of the most joyous words in the English language “it’s a cyst”.  Let’s make no mistake now, I was very lucky, all I was left with was a large bruise and scary memories of a doctor with a long needle, it could have been much worse.  A woman who doesn’t have a child before she is thirty has a higher risk of breast cancer than one who has.  Of course despite medical advances pregnancy and childbirth are still 2 of the most hazardous things that can befall a woman’s health but some how I can see those as ‘natural’ and breast cancer as very clearly life threatening (however treatable it may be).

So what did I learn from this?  I could examine my breasts, regularly.  All it takes is five minutes and in that time I could save my own life, but what else could I do to reduce my risks? Obviously if you are a smoker you can stop, you can eat more healthily but do you know the biggest effect? You can breastfeed!

Did you know that a mum’s chance of getting breast cancer decreases by approximately 4.3% for every year that she is breastfeeding? And if you are in the high risk group for hereditary breast cancer then breastfeeding for 2years (as the NHS and the World Health Organisation suggest) could reduce your chances by half? 

Even more than that being breastfed as a child reduces a baby girl’s chance of developing breast cancer in adult hood by around 25%!

If every child in Britain was breastfed for just an extra 6 months that would mean about 1,000 fewer cases of breast cancer in Britain each year! (Source: Cancer Research UK http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/about-cancer/cancer-questions/how-is-breast-feeding-related-to-breast-cancer)

So if you are still there wondering what you can do to help reduce the rates of  breast cancer in this country and across the world, then wonder no more, get out there and encourage a pregnant mum to breastfeed and support her not just during those first critical weeks but through the whole of her breastfeeding relationship with her child. And leave those silly (sometimes hurtful) status games alone.

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