World Cancer Day: Understanding the realities of breast cancer for over 60s

Feb 04, 2023
Breast cancer is a common and potentially life-threatening condition that affects people of all ages, with the average age of diagnosis being 62. Source: Getty Images.

The establishment of World Cancer Day on February 4, 2000 aimed to bring attention to cancer and drive progress in areas such as research, prevention, patient services, and awareness. The goal was to mobilise the global community in order to make advancements in cancer care.

World Cancer Day aims to bring about a world where everyone has access to proper cancer prevention, treatment, and care by increasing global awareness, education, and inspiring personal, collective, and government action. In an effort to create a world where everyone can receive the cancer support they require.

According to TAL General Manager Health Services, Dr Priya Chagan, World Cancer Day presents “an opportunity to build awareness about the realities of breast cancer including its risk factors, common warning signs, and the importance of early detection.”

Breast cancer is a common and potentially life-threatening condition that affects people of all ages, with the average age of diagnosis being 62.

According to the Cancer Council, more than 20,600 people were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2022.

In addition to these alarming figures, breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, and it’s estimated that one in eight females and one in 668 males will be diagnosed by the time they are 85.

Despite the seriousness of breast cancer, many often experience barriers to early detection and treatment due to factors such as limited access to healthcare, financial constraints, and misconceptions about the disease.

It is important to be proactive about breast health and to work closely with healthcare providers to ensure prompt diagnosis and effective treatment.

Clinical Nurse Consultant and Breast Care Nurse at The Wesley Hospital, Janette Snowdon highlights that “breast cancer is more common in women aged over 50 accounting for 80% of newly diagnosed diseases” but that despite that high rate of diagnosis “the prognosis for breast cancer is good.

“More women are surviving breast cancer than ever before, the survival rates have increased substantially in the past 20 years. Today over 90% of women are expected to survive at lease five years,” Snowdon said.

In order to ensure best patient outcomes for those afflicted with breast cancer, early detection and treatment is essential.

In an effort to understand the most effective prevention and detection measures for breast cancer and in recognition of World Cancer Day, Starts at 60 spoke further Chagan and Snowdon to gain their insight in the insidious disease.

Source: Getty Images.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

Remaining vigilant when it comes to breast cancer is crucial to ensure the best chance of early detection and improved health outcomes.

Regular self-exams and mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, when it is most treatable, therefore it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, as well as any changes in the way the breasts look or feel.

Early detection of breast cancer through regular screening and awareness of the signs and symptoms can save lives, so it is essential to remain vigilant and proactive.

Snowdon points out that “some early signs that should be investigated include, nipple change, nipple discharge, change in shape, discomfort, pain, swelling, rash, dimpling of the skin, feeling a lump or lumps, firmer breasts, redness or inverted nipples.”

Snowdon also stresses that “some women believe that breast cancer is simply a lump and if they don’t have a lump they are in the clear, really any change is a sign that should be investigated.”

Chagan shares similar sentiments to Snowdon, stating that “it’s a common misconception that the first sign of breast cancer is a lump.”

“Breast cancer, in its early stages, can appear on a mammogram screening before a physical lump or an area of thickened tissue can be noticed or felt via human touch, which is why periodic screening tests are important in early detection,” Chagan says.

Chagan draws attention to some “other lesser known yet common red flags that are worth looking out for when examining your own body” when it comes to remaining vigilant for breast cancer.

“Skin changes, such as redness, rashes, dimpling, irritations around the nipple, or a thickening of the skin can be early signs,” Chagan explains.

“Changes to the nipple, such as inversion as well as a discharge that occurs without squeezing are other warning signs, as well as any general changes to the size, appearance or shape to your nipples and breasts.

“While not all breast changes will equate to a breast cancer diagnosis, visiting your doctor as soon as you notice any abnormalities or have any concerns about your breast cancer risk is the best way to ensure any changes are investigated early.”

Source: Getty Images.

How to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer?

Prevention can play a crucial role in reducing the incidence of breast cancer and improving outcomes for those who are diagnosed.

Although some risk factors for breast cancer, such as age and genetics, cannot be controlled, there are lifestyle and behavioural changes that can help lower the risk of developing breast cancer.

By incorporating preventive measures and being proactive about breast health, the risk of developing breast cancer can be reduced and as a result improve the chances for a healthy future.

Chagan concedes that although “it is not possible to remove all risks associated with developing breast cancer, as some factors like family history cannot be changed, but there are multiple precautions you can take to lower some of the risks.”

“An unhealthy weight can increase your risk of breast cancer, so maintaining a balanced lifestyle is a key place to start. One of the best ways to do this is to remain active, from taking up a new sport to a daily walk,” Chagan explains.

“Eating well is also a big part of the equation, so try to avoid processed and fast foods and focus on maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet.

“Alcohol is another risk factor. Even in small amounts, it can increase your probability of a breast cancer diagnosis. Studies have shown that women who have three alcoholic drinks a week are at a 15% higher risk of breast cancer 2 than those who do not drink, so limiting your intake is a good measure to take.”

Source: Getty Images.

The importance of early diagnosis

Early diagnosis is critical in the treatment and management of breast cancer. When breast cancer is detected early, treatment options are more effective and outcomes are improved.

Early detection can also help reduce the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, making treatment less invasive and less debilitating. Regular screening and self-exams can play a vital role in early detection, allowing women to detect changes in their breasts and seek prompt medical attention if necessary.

Early detection and prompt treatment can make a significant difference in health outcomes, so it’s important to be proactive about breast health and seek medical attention promptly if any changes arise.

Chagan says that “people with early-stage breast cancer often manage their condition successfully with treatment.”

“In fact, many people who’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis go on to live long lives,” Chagan says.

“It’s important to be familiar with the way your breasts look and feel so you are alert to any changes to follow up with your doctor.

“The Australian national screening program, BreastScreen Australia, offers free mammograms every two years for women aged 50-74 years, and for women over 40 years, should they request one.

“Regular mammograms offer the best chance of an early detection.

“Better understanding the risk factors, the precautions we can take, and the signs we should look out
for can help save lives.”

Snowdon also highlights the value of mammograms in the early detection of breast cancer, while also highlighting the crucial role of regular self-checks.

“A mammogram will look for any abnormalities in the breast, they look at density in the breast, tissue, fat, calcium and more. A mammogram is a baseline for a breast check. If something is found on a mammogram it does not mean it is cancer but it should be investigated,” Snowdon says.

“Mammograms for routine screening are given from age 40 but if you have a family history of breast cancer you should have a mammogram 10 years prior to your first-degree relative’s diagnosis. For example, your mother was diagnosed at 37, you should have regular mammograms from age 27.”

Snowdon closed by stating that self-checks should be performed “at least once a month, preferably not close to your menstrual cycle as your breasts can change at that time.”

“It’s important to do it in front of a mirror so you understand what your breasts look like and will notice any visible changes. It can also be helpful to ask a partner to check for you as well,” Snowdon says.

As part of  Breast Cancer Awareness month last year, the McGrath Foundation had its Breast Care Nurses develop a process called Look, Feel, Learn to make self-checking easy to remember for Australians.

Look – at the shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples in the mirror with your hands by your sides. Raise your arms above your head and have another look.
Feel – all of your breasts and nipples, looking for anything that isn’t normal for you. Feel from your collarbone to below the bra-line and under your armpit too.
Learn – what is normal for you! Breasts come in all different shapes and sizes, so get to know your normal. See your doctor if you notice any changes.

It’s important for those over 60 to understand the realities of breast cancer and take proactive measures to detect it early. Regular screenings, a healthy lifestyle, and prompt attention to any changes in the breast should all be part of a comprehensive approach to breast health. With early detection and effective treatment options, the outlook for those diagnosed with breast cancer can be positive.


IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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