The incidence of breast cancer among South African women is increasing and it is one of the most common cancers among women in South Africa. It is the most prevalent cancer amongst white and Asian women and the second most common cancer among black and coloured women.
Facts about breast cancer
- Early detection of the condition can lead to effective treatment and a positive prognosis. About 90% of patients survive for many years after diagnosis when breast cancer is detected at the early stages.
- Regular self-breast examination and regular mammograms are key to early detection.
- Presenting yourself early for treatment may result in more effective treatment, leading to a reduction in pain and suffering and a significant decrease in the loss of life.
The designation of October as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” in South Africa reflects a nationwide drive by public and private healthcare structures to raise awareness of this debilitating disease across all races and class structures.
Lynn Shaw shares hard-earned wisdom
Lynn Shaw (66) already knew she was strong. People had told her so, ever since she was a child.
But breast cancer confirmed it.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Every year I have a mammogram done. I worked at the Midway Road Traffic Inspectorate (RTI) for 34-years then as the Senior Admin Supervisor and in 2014 I just put having a mammogram off. Work at the time was just so hectic.
There were no warning signs in my case. When I had a mammogram done the next year, there was a red flag raised. I recall the doctors saying it does not look like cancer but let’s do a biopsy to check. The biopsy showed that my left breast was cancerous. That breast was removed as three of the four glands were infected. I did not get sick; I had no sores or anything to warn me of what my body was going through.
Mrs Shaw underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 23 rounds of radiation. Sometime during her treatment, doctors informed her that they had picked up spots on her lungs. They explained that it could be an old injury, tuberculosis, a cold or lung cancer.
“Miraculously it was none of the above,” she told cheerfully.
Reminiscing on the time she was due for her second and third radiation appointment, this happened. “I began to lose my hair, so I decided to just shave my head bald, I went to my hair dresser and on my way out of there it hit me that I’m a cancer patient and I’m going to surviving this. “I remember laughing about it while I put a hat on my head.
But once I left, I cried and the women at American Swiss comforted me that day.” For her, one of the hardest things was going for treatment and losing her hair. “Today I am cancer free,” exclaimed Mrs Shaw. Her fighting spirit assisted in this. Like other cancer survivors, Mrs Shaw has learned a number of hard-fought lessons she wishes she had known sooner. And like other cancer survivors, she’s eager to share her wisdom, hoping to make the journey less painful, frightening and confusing for other women and men.
“You always think your problem is big but it’s nothing compared to what others are going through and I saw this when I went for treatment,” explained Mrs Shaw. She found that being busy and around people helps. “I have joined the local Cancer Survivors Support group. I had amazing support from family, friends, co-workers, prayers from church members, my doctors and the cancer survivors I met. We have all become one big family.”
The three year breast cancer survivor still has check-ups after every six months. Mrs Shaw’s positivity is inspiring and her zest for life is contagious, she has found that nothing is as rewarding as surviving. “Having breast cancer is not the end of the world; just don’t ever put off having pap smears and mammograms. I have learned that nothing is more important than your health,” she urged. And these perspectives served her well during her diagnosis and treatment. She now lives by the motto: “Cancer doesn’t have to kill you: you get up, get dressed and show up. Just be positive and make something good out of your situation.”
Doctor’s advice: What is breast cancer?
Dr Lalitha Badul
Breast cancer is an uncontrolled growth of breast cells. To better understand breast cancer, it helps to understand how any cancer can develop.
Cancer occurs as a result of mutations, or abnormal changes, in the genes responsible for regulating the growth of cells and keeping them healthy.
The genes are in each cell’s nucleus, which acts as the “control room” of each cell. Normally, the cells in our bodies replace themselves through an orderly process of cell growth: healthy new cells take over as old ones die out.
But over time, mutations can “turn on” certain genes and “turn off” others in a cell. That changed cell gains the ability to keep dividing without control or order, producing more cells just like it and forming a tumour.
A tumour can be benign (not dangerous to health) or malignant (has the potential to be dangerous).
Benign tumours are not considered cancerous: their cells are close to normal in appearance, they grow slowly, and they do not invade nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body. Malignant tumours are cancerous.
Left unchecked, malignant cells eventually can spread beyond the original tumour to other parts of the body.