Jan de Vries: Simple breast checks you need to do
I am very conscious of the terrible shock that women face when they suddenly discover there is something wrong with their breasts. The other day, I listened to a lady who tried to control the tone of her voice as she told me emotionally about the mastectomy she had undergone after a lump was detected in her breast.
In her own words, she said, "My breast was taken off, it was binned by the surgeon and I just had to get on with my life." She emphasised the word "binned", being extremely upset, although she did try to put on a brave face about her ordeal. It is quite a shock to learn that something is wrong with your body.
After seeing 13 patients with breast cancer one Saturday, I was very aware of how big this particular problem is and how many sufferers there are today.
As one national newspaper reported, "in some parts, there is an epidemic".
However, I would stress that seven out of eight breast lumps are benign and not cancerous.
It is very important that a woman examines her breasts regularly, because benign breast lumps are easily treated.
I often say that everybody in the world should get to know their own body, to listen to it and make sure that everything is in order, as the body will often give us warning signals if something is not right.
Breast awareness is extremely important. Not only are breasts treasured by women themselves, but also often by their partners.
It is therefore important for a woman to know how her breasts look and feel normally, so that she will be able to recognise any unusual changes.
It is also important to be aware of the different cycles that breasts go through – for instance, before and after a period, before and after the menopause or after a hysterectomy – and to check for any lumps, thickening or lumpiness, or nipple changes.
Nipple changes - especially when the nipples become inverted - can be an indication of something serious and are one of the main things that will cause a doctor concern.
If there is any change, one should not delay in consulting a doctor to have the cause investigated.
Any change in the size or shape, any dimpling of the skin, swelling under the armpit or pain in the breast must be looked into. People are now becoming more aware of breast cancer and of the importance of self-examination.
According to BreastCancer Care in 2004, there were 44,659 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the UK: 44,335 (99%) in women and 324 (1%) in men.
It is therefore extremely encouraging to see that screening is now routinely being carried out, as anything that can assist in the reduction of these statistics is very welcome.
I am often asked what can cause breast cancer. Although with lung cancer it is easy to say it is due to smoking, it is more difficult to say that breast cancer is triggered by any particular cause. I am aware of certain risk factors, but hormonal changes also play a big role.
Genetic risk factors are possibly more common, however, and it is to one's own advantage to be observant - especially around the time of a period - of any change in the breasts, particularly with so-called cystic breasts.
It is extremely important that action is taken when cysts are discovered because, although they may not cause any immediate problem, it is not advisable to leave them untreated.
High dosages of vitamin C, together with the remedy Petasites, will very often be helpful in eliminating breast cysts.
Although most are benign and not cancerous, any such cysts or lumps left untreated have the potential to become cancerous. It is sometimes surmised that breast cancer can be caused by stress and I strongly agree with this statement.
As I have often said, a cancer cell is like a brain cell and stress can indeed form a precancerous situation, in which case there might be a relationship between stress and cancer.
We have to deal with many emotional problems today: divorce, jealousy, work resentment, redundancies, bereavement, etc.; and it is possible that breast cancer can develop because of these additional stresses.
Sometimes women ask me if they have a greater risk of getting breast cancer because their mother or grandmother was very stressed and developed breast cancer.
One could say that genes do have an influence on how susceptible we are to developing breast cancer. Therefore, if you are at all worried, it is advisable to consult a specialist for reassurance in order to allay any fears.
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in women. It accounts for approximately one in every three cases of cancer and often occurs in slightly older women. Although it is often painless, one has to be aware of the silent situation that can manifest as a lumpy breast, small cysts or even a slight discharge from the nipple. Most tests nowadays are routinely carried out in a laboratory, where specialists can quickly establish whether there is any real cause for concern.
When a specialist examines the breasts and carries out tests, such as a mammogram (an x-ray of the breasts), in most cases there is nothing to worry about.
The question 'Can breast cancer be cured?' is often put to me. Although 'cure' is a big word, I am glad to say that I have seen many survivors and a lot of happy people who have been successfully treated using several different methods or remedies. Often women become panic-stricken when they discover some abnormality in their breasts, but the tremendous fears that they have are usually unnecessary. The vast majority of breast lumps, as I have said, are benign or harmless – that is a medical fact. Nevertheless, women should never ignore symptoms such as itching, swelling and other changes. The first thing is to keep calm, do something about it and, if there is something wrong, seek medical advice as soon as possible.
One should be aware that everybody has abnormal cells present in their body and these are mainly no cause for concern. By undergoing the breast-screening programme, one has the opportunity to investigate any problems quickly and often control the situation. Self-examination is necessary in the first instance. It is better to be safe than sorry, but try not to become unduly alarmed.
My book Female Cancers includes further information and advice