Have you just turned 40? Time for a mammogram

A health official takes a client through breast cancer examination steps. From the age of 40, a woman should have an annual mammogram to ensure any tumour on the breast is detected early.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • As women advance in age, their risk of having breast cancer increases too, due to accumulation of age-associated changes in a biochemical process that helps control genes.
  • At 40, a mammogram can easily diagnose a lump on the breast that cannot be felt with self-examination.
  • One in six women is at the risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.
  • Women should also examine their breasts one or two weeks after their menses.

Have you just turned 40? Well, it’s time to start annual mammograms to ensure you are safe from breast cancer.

As women advance in age, their risk of having breast cancer increases too, due to what some studies have attributed to accumulation of age-associated changes in a biochemical process that helps control genes.

The average age of breast cancer diagnosis is 48 years as explained by Dr Miriam Mutebi, a breast surgical oncologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital.

She spoke during a breast cancer awareness webinar organised by Pan African Organisation for Health, Education and Research on October 25.

Fatty tissues

At 40, a mammogram can easily diagnose a lump on the breast that cannot be felt with self-examination.

She explained: “As we grow older, the glands shrink and disappear and they are replaced with fatty tissues. And that is why when you are in your 40s, your breast feels softer than it was 20 years ago.”

“At 40, we expect the glands to have reduced to such as level that when you shine a light, you are able to see an image. If you try to shine a light on a breast full of glands, the glands just scatter the light,” she added

From the age of 40, a woman should be having a mammogram annually to ensure the tumour on the breast is detected early, she said.

Screening culture

A mammogram, she said, can pick a lump less than one centimetre, which a self-examination cannot detect.

Head of Clinical and Radiation Oncology at Cancer Diseases Hospital in Zambia, Dr Catherine Mwaba, emphasised on the need to adopt a breast screening culture.

“Breast cancer is not a preventable disease because nobody knows what causes it,” she said during the meeting.

 “That is why we need to detect the disease early and treat is so that the outcomes are better. You may reduce the risk but not prevent it from occurring.”

Breast tissues

While self-examination is an important step towards minimising the detrimental outcomes such as removing the whole breast, one must observe some rules to have an accurate diagnosis.

Dr Mutebi said one in six women is at the risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.

Furthermore, as long as you have breasts and breast tissues you are at the risk of developing breast cancer, she noted.

So how can one achieve precision in self-examination?

By using the palm of the three fingers-ring, middle and fore fingers and gently press the tissues against the breast walls, she advised.

The breast tissues are compressible and you can feel the lump if there is any because it feels like a marble, she said.

Nipple discharge

A feel of a lump, however, is not a clear-cut symptom of cancer. She said nine out of 10 lumps are not cancerous.

Women should also look out for a discharge from the breasts.

 “We need to make a distinction between a discharge and secretion,” she said, “A secretion is what you go out checking whereas a discharge comes out on its own.”

“Nipple discharge is what concerns when it is spontaneous and unilateral, meaning it is coming out (from one breast),” she said.

Women should also examine their breasts one or two weeks after their menses, advised Dr Mwaba.

“Never try to examine your breasts just before your menses because you are going to feel a swelling and hardening. And you are not going to feel anything (in form of a cancerous lump),” she said.


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