October is breast cancer awareness month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so the Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging all women to be ‘breast aware’ and to think about attending for screening when invited.

In 2011/12 a total of 76,179 women aged 50–70 were invited for screening with 55,819 attending. This means that more than a quarter of women who were invited did not take up the offer of screening mammography.

“Prevention and early detection are key to saving lives from breast cancer,” said Dr Adrian Mairs, Consultant in Public Health at the PHA and Quality Assurance Director for the Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme.

“Regular breast screening reduces the risk of death from breast cancer. On average 1 life will be saved from breast cancer for every 200 women screened.”

Most women who attend for breast screening mammography will have normal mammograms. Out of every 100 women who attend for screening about 4 are asked to come back for further tests. Most will then have a normal result. In 2011/12, a total of 432 breast cancers were detected – that equates to more than one woman per day who previously did not know they had cancer, but who are now getting treatment.

Dr Mairs continued: “I would encourage all women who are invited for breast screening to consider attending. However, it is important that women make an informed choice, while breast screening does save lives, in some cases it results in over-diagnosis and over-treatment. Some women are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have been found without screening and which would never have become life-threatening. Overall, for every 1 woman who has her life saved from breast cancer, about 3 women are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have become life threatening.

“I would also encourage women over the age of 70 to consider contacting their local breast screening unit to arrange an appointment every three years. Many women don’t realise that the risk of breast cancer continues to increase with age. Breast screening remains the best way we have of detecting breast cancer at an early stage when treatment can be more effective.

“Lifestyle changes can also help reduce a woman’s risk of developing the disease, including stopping smoking, cutting down on alcohol, eating a low fat diet, being a healthy weight and taking regular exercise.

“It is also important for women to look out for changes in the appearance of their breasts such as a change in size or outline of either breast, especially those caused by arm movement; any puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin; or veins that stand out more than usual.

“Women should be aware of any feelings of pain or discomfort in one part of either the breast or armpit, particularly if it is new and persistent. Women should also look and feel for any lumps or thickening in either breast that feels different from the other breast, as well as any swelling or lumps under the armpit or around the collarbone and any changes to the nipple such as a nipple that has become pulled in, changed shape, has a discharge, bleeds, has a rash or crusted, flaky skin.

“Many changes are harmless but all should be checked by a GP. If the change is due to cancer, earlier detection may mean simpler and more successful treatment.”