KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 24 – Breast cancer is an ever-looming concern in Malaysia, where the potential risks often remain underestimated, and the urgency of regular screenings is not given the attention it deserves.
Statistics reveal that one in 19 Malaysians is diagnosed with breast cancer annually. There has been a significant increase in breast cancer awareness, but the reality is that many newly diagnosed women are already at advanced stages.
To pave the way for a brighter and healthier future for Malaysian women and men, Dr Christina Lai, consultant oncologist at Sunway Medical Centre explains some lesser-known aspects of the disease, and provides her insights into the multifaceted realm of breast cancer.
Understanding The Risk Factors And Recent Trends
Like any cancer, breast cancer can strike anyone. Some factors, such as genetics, family history, hormonal factors, lifestyle, age, menstrual cycle and menopause, increase susceptibility.
However, men can also get breast cancer, accounting for one per cent of cases.
While some risk factors cannot be modified, some elements, like delaying childbirth or not having children, are within our control.
“This is why married women are often advised to consider starting a family earlier, especially as modern careers often lead to delayed family planning.
“Also, we see 50 per cent of women being diagnosed under 50 years old in Malaysia. Therefore, even young women should start paying attention to this condition. As oncologists, we still grapple with patients who are misinformed or delay medical attention,” said Dr Lai.
Dr Lai recalls the frustration when patients wait until a lump in their breast becomes painful and larger before seeking medical consultation when early treatment would offer much better outcomes.
“This was when a patient waited eight months before coming in about her breast lump. By the time she came, the lump had grown to five centimetres, and cancer had spread to her spine, placing her in Stage 4 of breast cancer.
“This situation is sadly common, leaving us with the million-dollar question: What if she had sought care earlier?” added Dr Lai.
Detection As Early As Stage 0 Is Key To Improving Treatment Outcomes
Early detection is the cornerstone for improving breast cancer treatment outcomes. Regular health screenings, including mammograms, clinical breast exams, and self-examinations, help detect cancer at its earliest, most treatable stages.
The survival rate of individuals in the early stages is significantly higher compared to locally advanced (Stage 3) or metastatic (Stage 4) breast cancer.
Mammograms, typically recommended annually for women aged 40 and above, can detect precancerous breast calcifications, visible as white spots on X-ray images, indicating ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), also known as Stage 0 breast cancer.
While DCIS is often benign, it accounts for 20 per cent of all newly diagnosed breast cancers.
“People often avoid mammograms because of the discomfort. Nevertheless, breast cancer screening is a vital health inspection.
“If the process seems daunting, consider bringing a friend for moral support. Diagnostic technologies, such as 3D mammography, have improved early detection, even in patients with dense breast tissue.
“However, the most critical step starts at home, with you conducting regular self-examinations of your breasts because you are most attuned to your body,” shared Dr Lai.
Dr Lai also encourages everyone — both women and men to initiate self-examinations to identify any abnormalities as early as 20 years old once a month.
“If you feel a lump in your breast, it is vital not to panic, since only 10 to 20 per cent of lumps turn out to be cancerous, but for women, do not do it just before menses as breasts tend to swell,” explained Dr Lai.
The Field of Oncology Has Witnessed Remarkable Progress In Recent Years
The latest advancements in screening and oncology offer new hope for women facing breast cancer.
“Hormone status and genomic studies provide valuable insights, allowing oncologists to tailor treatments to each patient’s unique situation.
“This has led to targeted treatments that can significantly shrink or eliminate tumours.
“Patients today also experience fewer side effects, thanks to
innovations like hair-preserving chemotherapy machines, oncoplastic surgery for breast reconstruction, and improved anti-vomiting drugs,” said Dr Lai.
While breast cancer remains a serious disease, early detection and evolving treatments offer hope.
“Understanding your risk factors, committing to regular screening, and consulting your doctor can make a significant difference,” she added.
Breast Cancer Remains A Serious Disease, But There Is Every Reason To Be Hopeful
In the past, a breast cancer diagnosis was often accompanied by fear and uncertainty, which meant facing disfiguring surgeries and debilitating treatments.
Today, the outlook for women with breast cancer is much more positive. Treatment approaches are also less intrusive to patients’ lifestyles and daily life.
Therefore, while breast cancer remains a serious disease, there is every reason to be hopeful, especially when detected early.
This Pinktober, remember that being proactive in understanding your risk factors and committing to regular screening and early detection can turn the tide against breast cancer.
If you have any concerns about breast cancer, please consult your doctor. Your health screening centre can also recommend an appropriate package tailored to your risk factors.