17 August 2016

Namibia: Giving Birth Before 30 Reduces Risk of Breast Cancer

BREAST cancer ranks as one of the most common cancers afflicting women in Namibia as well as globally, and characterises itself by slow to rapid growing tumours.

Young first-time mothers can reduce the risk of breast cancer - here's why.

One single full-term pregnancy in women in their 20s decreases the risk for estrogen receptor-positive post-menopausal breast cancer, which is the most common form of the disease.

An international scientific collaboration led by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute's principal faculty member Kornelia Polyak, and Saraswati Sukumar, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has discovered why.

An early pregnancy specifically decreases the risk for estrogen receptor-positive breast tumours. The researchers believe the signalling pathways they have identified might be exploited for breast cancer prevention, and decrease breast cancer risk.

This means that women obtain a lower risk of breast cancer when they have a full-term pregnancy before they reach 30 years of age, excluding either abortion and/or miscarriage. This occurs because breast tissue formed during adolescence matures during the first full-term pregnancy.

If you have had a pregnancy in your 20s or are yet to have a pregnancy, you still need to understand the origin of breast cancer.

Breast cancer results from an abnormal growth of breast cells. While immature breast cells respond to the hormone estrogen, and hormone disrupting chemicals such as parabens present in modern-day plastic like what we store our food in, these do at times result in an abnormal growth of breast tissue, which can result in breast cancer.

In addition to that, researchers have also confirmed that girls who start their menstrual periods very early have a higher chance of developing breast cancer, with some girls starting their menstrual periods at the age of 8 years.

This means that measures need to be taken to understand yourself and your breasts. First and foremost is a regular monthly breast self-exam.

You can perform this either in the shower, lying down, or in front of a mirror. Ensure that you check all of your breast material for any irregularities, and if you find any suspicions, have it checked by your general practitioner.

Over 90% of irregularities are non-cancerous, like cysts.

In addition to your breast material, check your nipples to ensure there are no unusual discharges. You should ensure that the shape of your breast remains the same. If you see any difference in shape, roughness on the skin surface or discharge from your nipples, please see your general practitioner.

As a general rule, visit your general practitioner/gynaecologist regularly to ensure and be reassured your breasts are okay. If they find or suspect an unusual situation, they might refer you to have either a sonogram or mammogram. A sonogram, which uses sound waves, outlines any suspicions, of which a radiologist can together with your consulting physician provide any necessary recommendations for treatment.

A mammogram, which uses radiation, provides another view of the breasts. The recommended age for a mammogram is for women over 40 who are no longer interested in having children. This procedure for women over 40 should be performed every two years, or at a more regular interval if requested by your general practitioner.

To complement regular self-exams and exams performed by your general practitioner you can follow a healthy lifestyle which includes eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, exercise, and drinking water. If possible, learn your family history to see if your mother and/or grandmother had breast cancer, which might increase your risk.

Habits like smoking and/or drinking alcoholic beverages can increase your risk, and should be avoided. Utilising family planning like birth control pills or implants can increase your likelihood to have breast abnormalities. Consult your general practitioner to fully understand all risks from family planning.

In summary, pregnancy in your 20s can reduce your likelihood of breast cancer. In addition, you can perform regular monthly breast self-exams, maintain a healthy lifestyle, exercise regularly, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, drink water and avoid smoking and drinking.

Understand your family history. And of course, see your general practitioner and/or gynaecologist regularly for your check-ups. Do not forget to join the Cancer Association of Namibia on the annual cancer walk 3 September.

*Hem Matsi is a laboratory technician and a medical technologist consultant.

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