What is breast cancer?
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. The first signs are often changes in the breasts and nipples, like lumps, hard parts, or unusual discharge. As with other cancers, the abnormal tissue that makes up the cancer is the result of the body's own cells multiplying out of control. Cancers can spread to other parts of the body, causing cancer there. That's why it's so important to check for changes and get medical attention as soon as possible.
Because then the cancer can be treated much more easily and the chances of survival are much better. The treatment for breast cancer often starts with surgery. This may just be to remove the tumour (a lumpectomy) or lymph nodes, though in some cases the entire breast might need to be removed (mastectomy). This is followed by heavy medication (chemotherapy), radiation therapy, and maybe hormone therapy. And by the way, even men can get breast cancer, so men should take changes around their chests seriously, too.
Lowering your risk and checking your breasts
It's difficult to say what causes breast cancer. Sometimes cancer can be genetic. And there are a few things that can give you a higher risk of getting cancer. Many risk factors, like gender, race or age, can’t be changed. Others, like drinking alcohol, being inactive and obese, can be worked on. And working on them also means reducing your risk. Walking as little as 2.5 hours a week can reduce your risk by 18 percent. A word about the pill: yes, it is true that the pill can slightly increase the chance of breast cancer.
The good news is though, that if you stop taking the pill, your risk level returns to normal. Once a month, you should check your breasts for lumps. Bear in mind that your breasts can feel different at different times during your menstrual cycle. Standing up or lying down, move around your entire breast with your fingertips in a circular pattern. Feel for lumps, squeeze the nipples and check for discharge and look for changes in colour. If you notice any changes, see a doctor as soon as possible. But don't panic – 8 out of 10 lumps aren't cancer.
Breast cancer and your sex life
All major illnesses will put a dent in your sex life, but having breast cancer is bound to bring any thoughts of sex to a screeching halt. Partly to blame is the treatment: chemotherapy can cause severe fatigue and nausea, the hormonal changes can make sex uncomfortable, and hair loss, mastectomies and all kinds of other side effects leave you feeling completely unsexy.
And the side effects can last for a long time, even after the treatment has ended. Because women often feel disconnected from their bodies, it's really important their partners continue telling them that they are desirable and sexy. But your partner may also be afraid of hurting you, waiting for you to take the first step. So, as always, communication is the key. Tell your partner when you are ready, and what you are ready for. Share your fears and ask him about his. And don't do anything you aren't ready for, just because you think you should.
Breast cancer and pregnancy
It's a myth that women who had breast cancer can't ever get pregnant again. It's a good idea to wait for a while after you finished treatment though. You and your body have been through a lot, and you need some time to relax and be in sync with your body again.
And it's always good to get your doctor's opinion beforehand, to see if you are ready. If you are still being treated and you want to have sex, you need to use a birth control method. You should stay clear of hormonal methods though and stick to non-hormonal methods, such as condoms. Once you have completed all your treatments, it's best to discuss your birth control options with your doctor.
I survived breast cancer, now what?
Many women who have survived breast cancer are terrified of the cancer coming back. There are a few things you can do though, to reduce your risk and go back to enjoying an every-day life. Firstly, take care of all your physical and emotional needs. You have been through a lot, and both your body and mind need some extra TLC now. And you should live healthily: eat a balanced diet, reduce stress (give yoga or meditation a try), drink only limited amounts of alcohol and exercise regularly.
And of course, you should have regular check-ups from your doctor to ensure that you stay healthy. A word on guilt: some cancer survivors feel guilty for successfully battling the cancer, while others didn't make it. That's normal too. Try not to keep these feelings bottled up inside. Try writing them down, or talk to a loved one or a counsellor. Voicing those feelings and exploring them will help you cope with them eventually.