KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 28 – Breast cancer is the leading cause of all cancer death among Malaysian women. The fact that women are choosing to marry and have children at a later age, combined with unhealthy diets and exposure to the environment, more and more women are being diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age.
“Breast cancer is a hormone-related cancer and high levels of estrogen in the body increases the risk of breast cancer as it encourages cancer cells to grow by promoting cell division and reproduction,” explained Dr Christina Lai, consultant clinical oncologist at Sunway Medical Centre.
“Women in the previous generation who get married and have children earlier have a lower risk of breast cancer as the estrogen in their body decreases when they are pregnant and choose to breastfeed,” she added.
As breast cancer continues to be diagnosed at a younger age, many women are concerned about their ability to have children. Besides hair loss, vomiting and diarrhoea, chemotherapy affects a woman’s fertility with a 40 to 80 per cent chance of early menopause.
Dr Hoo Mei Lin, consultant gynaecologist and fertility specialist at Sunway Medical Centre, pointed out that the damage to the ovaries due to chemotherapy is irreversible. The treatment affects the quantity and quality of the eggs, leading to infertility.
“However, patients can plan ahead as conservation methods such as embryo freezing, egg freezing and ovarian tissue freezing are available to enable patients to fulfil their wish of having children. Unmarried women who undergo egg freezing or ovarian tissue freezing prior to chemotherapy can preserve their eggs for a long time through cryopreservation techniques,” she explained.
After the frozen eggs have been thawed, it undergoes artificial insemination, embryo culture and embryo transfer to complete the process of conception in order to have a baby. The success rate of artificial insemination depends on the woman’s age; the younger the woman, the higher the success rate.
Meanwhile, married women have the option to freeze their embryos and when the time is right, the embryo is implanted in the uterine cavity. Freezing embryos is the most successful method to preserve fertility.
Dr Hoo advised breast cancer patients to have an open mind about their future and even consider having children as breast cancer patients under the age of 45 have an 80% survival rate after treatment.
“With the rapid advances in medical technology today, there is hope for breast cancer patients and survivors to plan their future. Technologies like egg and embryo freezing gives them the opportunity to have children in the future,” she added.
Breast cancer is one of the easiest cancers to prevent. Dr Lai advises women to do a monthly self-examination on their breasts, and besides looking for lumps, look for changes in the appearance of the breasts such as redness, swelling, cellulite, or unexplained bleeding or fluid secretion from the nipples. It is best to conduct this after menstruation when the breasts are softer.
“Once a lump is found, the cause should be identified as soon as possible. Many misunderstand that a lump means they have breast cancer. In fact, about 60 to 80 per cent of breast tumours are benignm and need to be checked regularly for any changes.
“In addition to self-examination and regular screening, it is important to establish a healthy lifestyle. Consume more food that is fibrous and avoid high fat, processed and sugary food. Also, exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week,” Dr Lai shared.
Additionally, women with a family history of breast cancer or with the BRCA gene should have an annual breast ultrasound and mammogram from the age of 25 to detect breast cancer early.
When it comes to cancer diagnosis, the focus is often about treating it, making fertility an afterthought. However, with the advancement in medical technology, surviving a cancer diagnosis is becoming increasingly successful hence, it is important to speak to your doctor as there are ways to help preserve fertility.
This article was written by Sunway Medical Centre.