Breast cancer prevention: an update

Breast cancer is a common condition facing South African women. It can be caused by a number of factors. Here is an update on what you need to know about the causes and prevention of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women, but it does afflict men too and can be as fatal in men as it is in women. Awareness of the disease as well as self-examination and early detection of suspicious lumps and bumps in the breast tissue can reduce the risk of death.

Although breast cancer is 100 times more common in women than in men, it has been said that males tend to have a poorer outcome – perhaps because awareness of the prevalence of the disease in men is not as acute as among women. As with most cancers, early detection and early treatment give people the best chances of survival and cure.

The following factors are important to note:


The disease is age-related. The risk of the disease is low in under-30-year-olds but rises with age.

Family history

If there is a history of cancer in the family, then the risk is greater and relatives should have a heightened awareness. In addition, an episode of breast cancer in one breast increases the risk of cancer in the other breast. It can be associated with a gene mutation, for which you can be tested.


Smoking, excessive alcohol intake, obesity, a low-fibre and a high-fat diet all increase the risk of developing breast cancer significantly.

Oestrogen exposure

Oestrogen, along with progesterone, is responsible for the regulation of the menstrual cycle. Women who have a long exposure to oestrogen are at a greater risk of developing breast cancer in the long term. So women who commenced their menstrual cycle at an early age and have a late onset of menopause seem to be at greater risk. Oral contraceptives also increase the risk.


Women who haven’t had children and did not breast-feed are at a higher risk. It is interesting to note that, with the convenience of powdered milk formulas, the incidence of breast cancer is rising in third-world countries.


Prevention is better than cure. It’s important to perform regular breast self-examination. Signs that should raise concern are any changes in the nipple, abnormal discharges, and changes in the skin with pain, swelling or dimpling of the skin.

However, not all small lumps can be felt. So, in addition to self-examination, all women should have regular mammograms after the age of 40. Lifestyle changes are just as important: cutting back on smoking and alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy weight, taking in enough dietary fibre and reducing your fat intake will help reduce your risk of cancer.

If you have any suspicious breast lesions or notice any changes, it would be sensible to consult your healthcare practitioner as soon as possible.


Dr Ed Baalbergen is the medical officer at the Vincent Pallotti Rehabilitation Centre (Cape Town) and is a member of the International Spinal Cord Society and the Southern African Neurological Rehabilitation Association. email:

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