October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and while I see the pink ribbons wrapped around trees in my neighbourhood and read the stories in magazines, I can’t say I’ve ever taken any steps to actively check my status. I mean, I occasionally feel ’em up while I’m in the shower but I’d be lying if I said I knew what I was looking for.
The truth is, I’ve never really taken the notion of breast cancer very seriously. Maybe it’s because I’m only 23, or because I hardly even consider the tiny blobs on my chest breasts to begin with. Either way, I was grateful for the opportunity to finally get some insight into the whole concept of breast cancer even if it meant going from 0-100. I’m talking literally having no experience of breast cancer testing or warning signs to undergoing a full exam, complete with a 3D breast ultrasound.
I met with Professor Apffelstaedt (how is this not the world’s most fun surname?) an associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch and head of Tygerberg Hospital’s breast clinic and was very quickly shown through to an exam room. Let me tell you something, there’s no messing around when it comes to a breast exam. I was asked to get my clothes off almost immediately. I removed my top and bra and put on (a super soft) pink satin robe while I waited for the doctor to arrive.
It’s all in the history
Any breast cancer exam will start off with a series of questions to help the doctors determine your medical history and whether or not you’re genetically susceptible to developing breast cancer. I was asked about both my mom and dad’s side of the family, whether or not any family members had had cancer and at what age they were diagnosed. We then went into my own medical history, discussing medications I’d used, when I got my first period and if I’d ever noticed anything odd about my breasts.
Cop a feel
This is where things started getting interesting. I was asked to lay down on on an examination bed where the doctor manoeuvred my arms into the position she needed them to be for the clinical examinations. Sounds fancy, but really it’s just getting felt up by a doctor. I’ve got to admit, I don’t know how comfortable I would have been with this had I had a male doctor. I was also suddenly super paranoid about whether my deodorant was holding up because, let me tell you, your pits are front and centre throughout this entire part of the exam.
The doctor felt the front and side of my breasts in a clockwise motion with the flat part of her fingers. Luckily, I had no discernible lumps. Next, I sat up and let the girls hand wild and free so that she could check symmetry, and that my breasts had no abnormal skin issues like redness or orange peel which can also be indicators of cancer.
Time to get technical
It was time for the real deal. The 3D breast ultrasound. Now, let me be honest. I had never even heard of this before I arrived at the breast clinic.
I had originally asked to get a mammogram but later discovered that because of the high volumes of radiation associated with mammograms, they were only done on women over the age of forty or in the event of the patient presenting signs of breast cancer.
With my initial examination showing no cause for concern, I was recommended a breast ultrasound as opposed to a mammogram. A 3D ultrasound gives doctors three views of the breast tissue – from the top, from the chest inwards and from the arm inwards. The advanced technology of the 3D ultrasound machine provides 360 slides per angle, giving the doctor over 1000 images of each boob. These images are then sewn together to create a 3D image of the breasts which can manipulated to view specific areas of the breast should any abnormalities be picked up.
Then the nerves kicked in
You how mammograms get a bad rep for being super uncomfortable and scary? It’s the look of those machines! I was taken to the scan room which was equipped with all sorts of transformer-level machinery and told to get comfy on the examination table. I was then greeted by the friendly radiologist who would be conducting the ultrasound. She explained what the ultrasound would entail (warm lotion an minor discomfort FYI) and I started feeling less nervous.
She squirted some soothingly warm lotion over my breast and placed the machine on top of it so that it was pressing down on my boob snugly. The machine started slowly moving my breast and the entire process was completely painless. I even got to look at the ultrasound footage on the screen in the same way pregnant women do, except instead of looking at a bundle of joy, I was looking at breast tissue. This was repeated across each of the three angles required for each breast before moving on to the next one.
I’m happy to report that my breast examination revealed two completely healthy boobs. But that doesn’t mean I don’t run the risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
One of the greatest things I learnt from this experience is just how ignorant we are (or at least I am) about breast cancer and our health in general. When we’re young we think we’re invincible but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just in the practise I visited alone, one in six women receiving treatment for breast cancer is under 40 years old.
Breast cancer in younger women can be more aggressive than in older women which is why it’s so important that we all know and understand how to check ourselves regularly through self examination.
Check out COSMO’s guide to a DIY breast exam here
What can I do to reduce my risk of breast cancer?
DON’T eat too many saturated fats. Avoid anything fried, including junk food.
DO go green. Stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables.
DO watch your weight. Increased body fat is linked to a raise in oestrogen levels.
DON’T drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day.
DO exercise more to decrease your breast cancer risk by 30%.