breast cancer and alcohol

Breast cancer and alcohol: is it time for last orders?

You’ve probably seen the report which has flying all over social media over the past month: the study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund which claimed that half a glass of wine (or a half of beer, or anything that constitutes 1.25 units of alcohol) increases the risk of breast cancer.

The report – created by a non-profit medical body which continuously reviews the global evidence on the links between breast cancer and diet, weight and exercise – claimed that for each 10g of pure alcohol consumed per day, the risk of premenopausal breast cancer increases by 5%, and the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer increases by 9%. We’ve already discussed the plethora of food scares that generate clicks and sell newspapers in a previous post, but alcohol is a far more known quantity in the world of medical research.

The link between breast cancer and alcohol

Sadly, it’s an established fact that alcohol causes 4% of cancers in the UK, and is the direct cause of roughly 12,800 cases of cancer in this country every year. Regular consumption of alcohol increases the risk of mouth and throat cancers, liver cancer and bowel cancer – and there is a clear link between breast cancer and alcohol. The nature of your consumption has nothing to do with it: people who drink a small amount on a daily basis run the same risk as heavier weekend and special-occasion drinkers.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s also a side-effect when we consume alcohol: our bodies convert it into a chemical known as acetaldehyde. It’s something that occurs naturally in ripe fruit, bread and coffee, and it’s also the element that causes hangovers. In minor quantities, it’s broken down naturally by the body, but there’s a chance that it can cause cancer by damaging DNA and preventing cells from repairing the damage.

Should you go on the wagon?

So, the only logical thing for people to do is to clear out their drinks cabinets and avoid the wine bars, right? Well, a lot of experts – including the people who launched the study – aren’t as militant about the subject as you’d think. As Sarah Toule, the WCRF’s Head of Health Information, points out; “With social drinking so ingrained in British culture, we realise that giving up might not be realistic for everyone. If you do choose to drink, you should at least try to reduce your intake.”

Other experts claim that the study is telling us nothing we don’t already know – that, like practically everything else we eat and drink, there is an element of risk, and the onus is on the individual, while some are pointing out that the report does not provide absolute risks and – as such – is not solid and inarguable proof that women should go teetotal.

When it comes to breast cancer, there are many different factors which could cause a person to develop it, and some such as genetics and family history are impossible to control. Our advice: by all means be aware of what causes cancer and consider lifestyle changes such as being physically active, controlling your weight and limiting your alcohol intake that can help reduce the risks.

Breast cancer and breast size

Breast cancer and breast size

Here’s a recent news story which caught our attention: a Mexican woman who reported a lump in her breast and reported it to her doctor, who told her that not only was she ‘too young’ to contract breast cancer (at 27!), but her breasts were also too small.

The former is clearly nonsense, but the latter is an incredibly dangerous assumption. Sure enough, she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years later, and underwent a double mastectomy.

We like to think that our own healthcare system is considerably more enlightened, but the idea that larger breast size = larger risk of breast cancer has been reported in the media. So let’s look at it in further detail.

When scientific reports become news headlines

The main source in this way of thinking about breast cancer and breast size stems from a study conducted in 2012 by an American genetics company which examined the DNA of over 16,000 women. The study was actually focussed upon the genetic factors underlying breast development, and sought to identify specific gene variations which were associated with breast size. And of the seven variants they discovered, three were also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

The study went to great pains to point out that these three variations do not automatically translate into increased rates of breast cancer: as we all know, breast cancer is a very complex ailment with a plethora of factors involved. But that doesn’t make for a good newspaper headline, so when the mainstream media jumped upon the study, it got boiled down to something like this. Which wasn’t the intention at all.

Is there a link between breast cancer and breast size?

On the surface, this opinion has an element of common sense about it: if you’ve got more tissue in a certain area, you’d assume that there would be a greater risk of developing cancer there. But there are multiple factors that we know for a scientific fact can increase the risk of breast cancer, including ethnicity, age, family history, oestrogen levels, whether a woman has been through the menopause or not, breastfeeding factors, general body health and lifestyle factors.

And thus far, there is no clear link between larger cup size and increased risk of breast cancer, and the idea that women with smaller breasts or ‘flat-chested’ women are at a reduced or zero risk of contracting breast cancer is completely wrong. If you have breast tissue – and you do, whatever cup size you take – the possibility of contracting breast cancer is there.

The moral of the story? No matter what your cup size, you need to keep tabs on your breasts. If you’re over 50, ensure you’re getting screened for breast cancer – and if you’re under 50 and you feel you may be contracting the symptoms of breast cancer or just want to be reassured, don’t hesitate to visit your GP at the first opportunity.

male breast cancer Thames Valley

Understanding male breast cancer

The first thing that needs to be said about male breast cancer is that, yes, it happens. And it happens more often than you think. While cases of breast cancer in men accounts for a mere 1% of all diagnoses worldwide, that’s still a lot of men. However, while women are encouraged to be open about their condition, there remains a huge stigma amongst male breast cancer sufferers which can have serious implications.

A recent news story brought home the difficulties and outright unfairness associated with male breast cancer, when a British man discovered he had been diagnosed with the condition for a third time. He’d already been in the headlines a decade ago when, after his initial diagnosis, his insurance company refused to pay for treatment because there were no provisions within the fine print for male breast cancer.

Sadly, this feeling of male exclusion continues to persist through all facets of breast cancer care. According to certain medical experts, many breast cancer trials either exclude – or don’t even think about – men from participating in the study. So, what’s the difference between breast cancer between the sexes?

Genetics play a major part

While the idea that the family history of cancer plays a part in the diagnosis and prevention of female breast cancer is a fairly recent theory, genetics has always been a crucial factor in male breast cancer. It’s estimated that 90% of all male breast cancer cases are oestrogen-dependent, which – in a group of people with a traditionally low content of oestrogen – means that science has traditionally seen the ailment as a genetic fluke.

However, recent research contends that a poor diet, obesity and high alcohol intake can play a major part in causing the development of male breast cancer.

Little support for male breast cancer patients

While the stigma of breast cancer amongst women has practically evaporated, it appears to be next to impossible for men to rely on a support system – partly because it’s seen as a female ailment, partly because the treatment involves an intake of oestrogen (which brings on fears of their own), and partly because men are naturally slow to ask for help when they need it.

The good news for male sufferers of breast cancer is that treatment options for the disease are virtually the same for men as they are for women, meaning that male sufferers can rely on the decades of research and discoveries that have increased survival rates. The bad news is, due to the reasons outlined above, men tend to discover they have the ailment much later on, reducing their chances for a full recovery.

While breast cancer in men is and will always continue to be an incredibly rare occurrence, the situation is unlikely to change. So, the onus is on men to check for lumps and bumps in the chest area as regularly as they would in other areas. This guide from a male healthcare website may be a help.

Berkshire mammograms

Your mam knows best: why mammograms are vital

A 2015 study by the US National Library of Medicine confirmed what all medical experts already knew. Finding breast cancer early reduces the risk of dying from it – and in some cases by up to 25%.

Ever since its debut in mid-Sixties America, the mammogram has become the foremost method of detection, and a valuable weapon in the fight against breast cancer. Early detection, often with the help of a mammogram, has helped to transform breast cancer from being an often fatal condition into something that eight out of every ten people diagnosed with it can survive.

However, despite all the benefits that mammograms can offer – and there are many – there is still an element of fear and dread surrounding them. Part of this is due to the completely natural fear of discovering something you’d much rather not think about, but a far riskier factor is the myths and scaremongering that have stemmed from years of mammogram use. So let’s discuss them.

Radiation from mammograms can’t cause cancer

The solid consensus amongst the medical community is that the benefits of mammograms massively outweigh the risk, and under no circumstances should anyone be scared off from getting checked out. Yes, there is an element of radiation involved in a mammogram, but it’s a very tiny dose – far less than a chest X-ray, and comparable to the radiation you are naturally exposed to over quite short period of time.

A recent study conducted by the University of California in 2014 demonstrated that people massively overestimate the exposure to radiation from mammograms, which – they contend – could lead a section of the female population to believe that mammograms aren’t worth the risk.

Parallel-plate compression does not cause tumours

Although the process of parallel-plate compression – where the breasts are squeezed – in order to even out and reduce the thickness of breast tissue – can often be uncomfortable and even painful for a short time, it does not cause the process of metastasis, in which cells break off a tumour, spread, and settle in a different place in the body to create a secondary tumour.

What can a mammogram show?

A radiologist will typically review your mammogram pictures and the good news is that for about 96% of women in the breast screening programme there will be good news. In early stage breast cancer, there might not be a lump, but the mammogram may reveal areas of calcium in the breast tissue that could be an indication of cancerous changes in the breast. A condition called ductal carcinoma in situ, also known as DCIS, can show up on a mammogram.

While having a mammogram is never going to be a pleasurable (or even comfortable) experience, it remains the best and surest way to detect the onset of breast cancer – and for that reason alone, mammograms remain a process that should never be avoided.

cancer scares in food

Cancer scares in food: should we be worrying?

Last year, it was alcohol. The year before, it was processed meat products. This year – already – we’ve been informed that overcooked roast potatoes, burnt toast, hazelnut spread, biscuits and even baby food have been linked to the increased possibility of developing cancer.

It seems that hardly a week goes by without another new cancer scares in food with a medical report linking a particular food to an increased risk of cancer, to the point where you feel if there’s anything left safe to eat. In fact, it gets to the point where you might feel it’s prudent to carry on eating whatever you like, safe in the knowledge that some other medical report will eventually claim that the food in question is actually good for you.

So what’s the truth behind the headlines?

The first truth is that when it comes to attracting attention (and clicks, and shares), not much beats a cancer scare – especially when it’s linked to something we take for granted, like food. And while there’s a grain of truth to the stories – too much of this or that will create a certain effect – the scientific truth tends to be buried underneath the sensationalism, if it’s there at all.

Take the most recent story – a warning from the Food Standards Agency that overcooked starchy foods such as toast and roast potatoes can create a chemical with links to cancer. As statements go, there’s nothing false about it at all: the chemical in question – acrylamide – is a natural by-product of foods with a high starch content that are fried, roasted, baked or toasted, particularly when they’re overdone.

Is there a link between acrylamide and cancer, though? This is where we hit the first grey area, because so far the link has only been proven in testing on animals – in this case, mice. And as is usually the case in studies like this, the mice used in the study were given astronomical amounts of acrylamide before a connection was made – the equivalent of 160 times the amount of burnt toast and overdone potatoes that humans will normally consume on a day-to-day basis.

Bear in mind that a colossal amount of anything – even water – has the potential to kill you.

What to do about cancer scares in food?

While any new information about what we eat should never be dismissed out of hand, it makes sense not to panic about what you put into your body. The first and most obvious thing to do is to look beyond the headlines, because unless you’re actively reading the most clickbaity websites, the truth about the risk will be found further down the page. You need to find out:

  1. Whether the link to cancer has been established in humans as well as animals
  2. How great the increase of the risk is – in certain cases, such as the recent bacon scare, the increased risk was so minimal as to be inconsequential
  3. The credibility of the people who are making the claim
  4. What reputable organisations – such as the NHS, the European Safety Authority, the US’s FDA, etc – have said in response

The logical next step is to take the information on board and follow sensible advice on dietary matters and act accordingly. A lot of the foods that pop up in these stories – potatoes, bread, hazelnut spread, crisps, biscuits, etc – are almost always ‘treat foods’ that are to be eaten sparingly.

Instead of worrying unnecessarily about individual foods and their possible impact on your health, it is important to bear in mind that the second biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking is obesity so a sensible and healthy diet should always be your aim.

breast prostheses and Mastectomy bras

Breast prostheses and mastectomy bras: a brief guide

Breast prostheses have been around since 1885, when an American inventor patented a ‘Breast-Pad’, which was made of rubber and filled with air. Thankfully, the technology has moved on since then: modern prostheses are usually made from silicone, which have the shape, weight and feel of a natural breast. In some instances, they can be fitted to the body with the use of an adhesive backing – but most women prefer wearing them in specially-fitted bras.

A brief history of breast prostheses

The modern mastectomy bra was pioneered in the mid-eighties, and originally consisted of a specialist bra with a silicon ring and specialist shape to replicate the appearance of a breast, but it wasn’t until the mid-nineties that the current ideal – a bra with space for an attachable prosthesis – became popular.

Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last year, mastectomy bras are officially labelled as ‘artificial body parts’, thanks to a German company which argued that they should be exempt from European import tax. But the real advantage to mastectomy bras is that they allow women to carry on wearing something they’ve been used to for all of their adult lives. All manner of designers have got in on the act, and there are specialist shops. They’re becoming part of our culture, too – as a recent storyline in Coronation Street demonstrated.

When can I wear a mastectomy bra?

Around six to eight weeks after breast surgery, the incisions that have been made will have healed, and you will be ready to be fitted for a weighted prosthesis. You will be advised of which fitters are operating in your area.

The fitter will begin by accessing the condition of the skin, to ensure there is no drainage or open wound in the incision area. Then, the fitter will determine your proper bra size by taking measurements at strategic points. It goes without saying that getting the fit right is crucial, not only to achieve a natural look as possible, but to ensure the optimum support of the prosthesis is achieved.

The next stage is the prosthesis recommendation. If you have had a single mastectomy, the fitter will evaluate the drape and shape of the existing breast and select a prosthesis that matches – be it a teardrop, triangle, heart or whatever shape it is. If you’ve had a double mastectomy, the fitter will recommend prostheses which will match and flatter your current dimensions.

The final stage involves you wearing a smock or drape and evaluating the recommended look for yourself, and either approving the new look or asking for corrections.

When do I need to change my new prosthesis?

If you’ve had a single mastectomy, experts recommend a yearly catch-up session with your fitter. There’s an obvious reason for that: as time goes on, your existing breast may change shape, and it makes sense to ensure your prosthesis continues to match up.

On average, the manufacturer’s warranty on breast prostheses lasts for two years – and as long as you treat them with care and avoid damaging them with accidental punctures or with exposure to perfumes or toiletries, your new mastectomy lingerie should boost your self-confidence for many days to come.

having a double mastectomy? Have a party too

Having a double mastectomy? Have a party too

having a double mastectomy? Have a party tooNone of us would ever know how we’d deal with a high risk of breast cancer, but this one is new to us: a woman from Leicestershire commemorated her double mastectomy and subsequent breast replacement treatment by throwing not one but two parties.

Sally Chapman, a teacher from Hinckley, was diagnosed as a carrier of BRCA back in 2012 – and after going through the family history and discovering that eleven of her grandmother’s siblings had died of cancer, decided to undergo a double mastectomy in 2015. But before doing so, she threw a ‘Goodbye Bad Boobs’ party, with a cake shaped like a pair of breasts, playing pin-the-tassels-on-the-boob, and even hanging a breast-shaped piñata from the ceiling.

‘You’re only as young as you are today’

Beneath the bravado, there was an understandable undertow of trepidation. Sally admitted she didn’t know what to expect. “Because I was young I thought I would have ages to consider my options and didn’t want to worry about it but having BRCA is very serious. I was told by someone going through preventative surgery that ‘You’re only as young as you are today’ which after a time helped me realise I needed to take action.”

And when she finished having breast reconstruction surgery – which included having new nipples constructed from the fat beneath the scar tissue in her breasts – she threw another party to welcome in her new look.

Party politics of a mastectomy

Although throwing a party for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery isn’t for everyone, we applaud Sally’s decision to do her own thing in order to commemorate a hugely important phase of her life, and to be completely open about her issues. And it’s a reminder that we have come a very long way as a society when it comes to dealing with breast cancer.

There’s nothing new about breast cancer: the first recorded diagnosis goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, but for much of history the ailment was stigmatised to the point where women would rather suffer (and decline) in silence than do anything about it – and even when they did, the theories of the cause ranged from too much (or too little) bile or phlegm, the result of a physical injury, too little (or too much) sexual activity, or even divine punishment.

It wasn’t until the improvement in sanitation (and the corresponding boost in life expectancy) in the 19th Century that breast cancer was taken seriously, but it took the creation of National Breast Cancer Awareness month in the USA in 1985 – and the rise of the Pink Ribbon throughout the globe in the Nineties – to remove the stigma of breast cancer.

Sally is now the CEO of her own trust, which is aiming to raise awareness about the BRCA gene and help women to take control of their health and make informed decisions about their bodies, and is involved in a Leicestershire campaign to help pay the costs of genetic testing for adopted women who have no knowledge of their ancestors’ medical histories. If you’re in the area and you’re concerned about the BRCA gene, get in touch with them.

How surviving cancer can be a battle in itself

How surviving cancer can be a battle in itself

The good news: you have a far better chance of surviving a bout with cancer than you ever had before at any other time in history. And many people have. They announce they’ve been given the all-clear, close friends and family bombard them with congratulations, and everyone else they know gives them a thumbs-up on Facebook. And then…what?

A recent article in The Scotsman – which all of our clients are advised to check out – confirms that post-cancer care is still uncharted territory for the medical profession and a period of physical and mental stress on the patients. Instead of feeling nothing but relief from an all-clear diagnosis, many patients find that the support system they had relied upon has been taken away, they’re not yet physically ready to pick up the threads of their day-to-day life, and the fear that the cancer will return magnifies every new twinge and ache.

The unsurprising upshot of this period is that many patients spiral into anxiety and depression, and there are many reasons for this: as one former patient noted; “My treatment was like having a wee security blanket… once you are discharged you feel like you would be pestering the hospital.”

Having gone through the experience, patients are all too aware of the pressures foisted upon the medical profession and are loathe to add to them. Also, dealing with the feeling – or outright being told by others – that they’ve been ‘lucky’ or ‘strong’ can bring on feelings of guilt.

How to cope in the post-treatment period

Don’t be afraid to ask for help – your GP will want to keep tabs on you in any case, and if they feel your condition requires more specialist care, they’ll do their best to get it for you.

Accept that you’ve gone through a life-changing experience, and take steps to deal with the negative consequences of it. If that involves counselling and anti-depressant medication, so be it – but that’s a decision for you and your GP to make.

Use your cancer experience to help others

If there’s a support group for cancer sufferers in your area, get involved. When you were in their position, wouldn’t you have liked to talk to someone who had come through the other side? More importantly, you’re not alone – there will be scores of people in your area who have gone through what you have, and will know exactly how you’re feeling right about now. Maybe you should talk to each other.

Stay in touch with the people who helped you – no matter how busy they are. Remember, you became a part of their life while they were acting as your support system, and they’d appreciate a reminder that they did something that really helped you when you needed it.

If you’re feeling worried that the cancer may be returning, say something. The worst-case scenario will be that you’ve caught something early and have maximised your chances of a recovery. The other option is that you’ll be told by someone who knows that you’ve got nothing to worry about, and you’ll be given advice on how to check for a relapse.

For more information on how to cope post cancer treatment, please get in touch with our team.

DCIS: It pays to check early and often

DCIS: It pays to check early and often

DCIS: It pays to check early and oftenHere at Thames Breast Clinic, we’ve been keeping tabs on the European Cancer Congress – the annual meeting of cancer care experts from across the continent – because many studies and findings discovered over the year are released there. One that certainly caught our attention was the announcement that women treated for very early signals of DCIS breast cancer are more likely to be still alive a decade later than the rest of the population.

According to the study, which tracked the progress of nearly ten thousand women in the Netherlands who were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) between 1989 and 2004, the women studied over 50 had their risk of dying reduced by 10% when compared to people of the same age in the general population.

What is DCIS?

Ductal carcinoma in situ is the most typical type of non-invasive breast cancer. ‘Ductal’ refers to the milk ducts, where the cancer first forms, ‘Carcinoma’ refers to to any cancer that begins in the skin or other tissues that cover or line organs, and ‘In Situ’ means ‘in its place of origin’.

DCIS is not a life-threatening condition, but it is a precursor of breast cancer: contracting DCIS increases the risk of developing an invasive cancer in the breast area in later life, and certain studies put the chances of a reoccurrence at 30%. There has been an increase of DCIS detection over time, but that’s a good thing: it’s an indication that people are living longer, and detection technology is improving.

How is DCIS treated?

The most common procedure for DCIS is lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy although there are other options – including a lumpectomy without radiation therapy and a mastectomy. In certain cases, hormonal therapy after surgery is recommended, in an attempt to block or lower the production of oestrogen.

Why would women with DCIS have higher survival rates?

The people behind the study are claiming no magic theories behind the results: rather, they surmise that the vast majority of people studied had their diagnosis through breast screening, which indicates they have been health-conscious and gotten themselves checked out at regular intervals, and have consequently caught their condition at an early enough stage to have something done about it.

And while specific mortality rates from breast cancer were higher than those among the general population – for obvious reasons – they eventually had a lower risk of dying from other cancers and diseases of the circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems than the rest of the general population.

So, in short, it pays to keep tabs on the state of your breasts, early and often. While the idea of contracting DCIS is an understandably scary prospect, it’s better to know it’s there and have it treated sooner rather than later.

If you’re unsure about how to check your breasts, or think you may have found something of concern, please contact us.

Mastectomy v lumpectomy - which works best?

Mastectomy v Lumpectomy: which works best?

Mastectomy v lumpectomy - which works best?A recent study from the Netherlands – which claims that women with early stage breast cancer have higher survival rates if they forgo a mastectomy and undergo breast-conserving surgery instead – has attracted a lot of media attention.

The study – which assessed the medical records of 130,000 Dutch breast cancer patients, making it the largest breast cancer survey of its kind – discovered that certain women over 50 and with other health issues increased their survival rates by a third by opting for a non-mastectomy treatment plan.

As Professor Sabine Siesling, the lead author of the study, pointed out; “We believe this information will have potential to greatly improve shared treatment decision-making for future breast cancer patients. However, we would like to emphasise that these results do not mean that mastectomy is a bad choice.”

Here’s a (very) brief guide to the differences in the procedures. Obviously, your consultant or practitioner will be able to give you the full picture, but here’s what you need to know for now:

What, in laypersons’ term, are they?

Simply put, a mastectomy is a complete removal of the breast, while a lumpectomy involves a partial removal of breast tissue – specifically the cancerous tumour and some of the unaffected tissue around it. This is then followed by a programme of radiation therapy. This usually involves five days of treatment per week, for a period of five to seven weeks, in an attempt to eliminate the possibility of the cancer returning.

What are the advantages of a lumpectomy over a mastectomy?

As it is a less invasive surgical procedure than a mastectomy, much of the appearance and sensation of the breast can be preserved. Also, the recovery time will be shorter and easier. And if you choose to opt for reconstructive surgery, it goes without saying that the procedure will be quicker and less extensive than it would be for a mastectomy patient.

And the disadvantages?

Two words: radiation therapy. Not only will you have to undergo an extensive stint of treatment, it can also leave your breast feeling much firmer and more tender. Furthermore, there could be the possibility of further surgery down the line, as the pathology report on the affected breast takes 4 or 5 days to be conducted – and if cancer cells are still present in the breast, another procedure will be required. Finally, there is no guarantee that a lumpectomy will rid the breast of cancer for good: if the cancer returns, a mastectomy procedure is recommended.

What are the advantages of a mastectomy over a lumpectomy?

Some women are more inclined to undertake a full mastectomy as a piece-of-mind procedure: when the breast is gone, the possibility of the cancer returning in the breast is almost gone too. Also, opting for a mastectomy can, in many instances, eliminate the need for radiation therapy – although it may still be needed depending on pathology results.

And the disadvantages?

Mastectomy surgery is a longer and more extensive procedure than lumpectomy, with a higher chance of post-surgical side-effects and a longer recuperation time. Obviously, due to the breast being completely removed, there could be additional and more extensive surgeries to reconstruct the breast, should you decide to take that route.

Which treatment is right for me?

As with most breast cancer issues, it’s the call of the person affected with breast cancer. It’s a completely natural reaction to want to preserve as much of your breast as possible, no matter how old you are, but your surgeon will want to give you the best chance possible for a full recovery.

If you would like to discuss this in more detail, please contact us to make an appointment.