Breast cancer, a life-threatening disease is on the rise in Singapore with one in 13 women diagnosed with breast cancer annually. According to the Breast Cancer Foundation, over 300 Singaporeans die from it every year. In Malaysia, breast cancer topped the list in the Malaysia National Cancer Registry Report‘s top 10 of the country’s most common cancers. With cases of breast cancer increasing on both sides of the causeway, Dr Joline Lim, who is both a consultant at the National University Cancer Institute (NCIS) and assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, shares why recognising the early signs of breast cancer is more important than ever.
What is breast cancer?
“Breast cancer occurs when breast cells divide and grow without control, sometimes invading surrounding tissue. In some cases, the cancer may grow very slowly while in others, it develops more rapidly. Most breast cancers start in the ducts while a small number start in the milk sacs or lobes,” says Singapore’s Breast Cancer Foundation.
As the types of breast cancer varies, the Foundation outlines three main types:
- “Cancer that is confined to the ducts (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ or DCIS) or lobules (Lobular Carcinoma In Situ or LCIS). DCIS is considered a precancerous condition while LCIS is a risk factor for invasive cancer.”
- “Cancer that has spread beyond the ducts or lobes to the surrounding breast tissue. Generally, most treatable in the early stage when the tumour is relatively small and has not spread to the lymph nodes.”
- “Cancer that has spread outside the breast to other parts of the body. If cancer cells are detected in the lymph nodes under the arm, it may mean that it has spread to other lymph nodes and organs such as the bones, liver or lungs.”
What are the early warning signs or symptoms of breast cancer?
Dr Joline Lim: “There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but there are things all women can do to decrease the risk. Breast cancer can occur even when patients feel completely well—the importance of undergoing breast cancer screening cannot be over-emphasised.”
FROM 20 YEARS OF AGE “Women can perform breast self-examination at home to look for any abnormalities, including breast lumps, abnormal discharge or retraction of the nipple, and any skin changes including rash, redness or dimpling of the skin,” says Dr Lim.
FROM 40 YEARS OF AGE “Based on local guidelines, women should start getting mammograms from the age of 40, at yearly intervals from the age of 40 to 49 years of age, and two yearly thereafter.”
OTHER RISK FACTORS If there is a prevalence of cancers in your family, or if you face other risk factors for breast cancer, “these guidelines may be modified based on the doctor’s assessment of every individual’s risk. Please do discuss this with your physician,” Dr Lim urges.
You’ve detected a suspicious lump in your breast: what’s the next step?
Should you detect a suspicious lump in your breast, Dr Lim recommends contacting a doctor as soon as possible. “This could be your GP, a doctor at the polyclinic, or a breast specialist, all who will be able to perform a clinical examination and based on the findings, further advise on the next appropriate step needed,” she advises.
How often should you get a breast screen?
As breast cancer can occur when patients feel completely fine, it’s not about waiting for symptoms to start screening, says Dr Lim. With prevention better than cure, Dr Lim advises us to be consistently vigilant, beginning with self-examination of the breasts at home. For a comprehensive list of breast cancer screening facilities, Dr Lim recommends logging onto Singapore’s Health Hub, which “also provides information on cost and potential subsidies available.”