One in eight Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
Contrary to a common perception, you don’t need a strong or even any family history of breast cancer to be affected. The vast majority of breast cancer sufferers have no significant family history.
Why is this? Because the two strongest risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older. Yep, that’s half of us.
And while breast cancer remains primarily a disease of older women, it can affect almost anyone. For example, about 15% of breast cancers occur in women under 45 years of age and 3% in women under 35.
A diagnosis of breast cancer is a scary time. You’re caught in the storm, walls closing in, suffocating. The nights are long and there seems no way out. Many women have high levels of anxiety, even when cancer is not yet confirmed. Perhaps they’ve felt a lump, have another breast symptom or a mammogram/ultrasound has found something.
WHAT TO DO?
· See your local doctor
· If you have an undiagnosed breast symptom, high quality breast imaging is paramount; at least mammogram and/or ultrasound
· Remember, most breast lumps/symptoms are NOT cancer
· Seek review with a specialist breast surgeon
“I HAVE BREAST CANCER”
It’s normal to feel panicked, scared, anxious and even disbelief. What’s important to remember is that rushing into treatment is not necessary. You have time to consider your options and make good decisions. I frequently tell my patients: “Whether you start treatment tomorrow or in six weeks it won’t make a difference to your overall chance of cure.” Breast cancers takes years to develop. A few weeks to work out the best way forward is neither here nor there. What WILL be a problem, is making a wrong treatment choice.
You need to find a breast surgeon. Whilst I have multiple patients from interstate, I generally recommend keeping treatment close to home where possible. Of course, I recommend someone with specialist breast expertise. But where do you start?
Your local doctor is an excellent source of information and will ultimately provide you with referral to a specialist. If you want to be more involved with selecting your specialist, word of mouth can be helpful and also online information such as with Australia’s professional Breast Surgeon group, BreastSurgANZ. A similar search tool is available on the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons website.
Finally, some women, newly diagnosed through BreastScreen, will have aleady met a Breast Surgeon through that process and may feel comfortable requesting referral back to him/her for ongoing care.
Whoever you choose, it’s important you feel confident with that surgeon as he/she will work closely with you to coordinate your initial and subsequent treatment. Beyond that, it’s likely you will continue to see your surgeon for regular check-up across many years. Having faith and trust in your surgeon is therefore critical.
INITIAL MEETING WITH YOUR SURGEON
This is an important day, for whilst I’ve said days, weeks and potentially even months are unlikely to impact on your final breast cancer prognosis, starting the process as soon as possible can bring some equilibrium back to what is an unbalanced time in your life. It’s for THIS reason, I make myself as available as possible to see urgent referrals promptly. Patients come to my consulting room that first time, frightened and unsure. It’s the best part of my job showing them a way forward; showing them breast cancer has effective treatment and is usually cured; watching that same frightened and unsure woman leaving, but now with a sense of empowerment. (Don’t forget to take a referral, any results and ideally your actual breast imaging pictures - rather than just a report. Older breast imaging can be very useful too.)
If you are not sure your surgeon is right for you, a second opinion can be useful. Remember, you have the time if you need it.
No one chooses to have breast cancer. It’s unfair and means tough decisions need to be made. But what choice do you have but to seek the best available information to make good and informed choices about your future. For the vast majority of women, that future may not be as difficult as they might have thought. Because fortunately, we are constantly finding better and better ways to tackle this all too common disease.