Breast Cancer Awareness Month Why breast screening and awareness is best

01 October 2021

By Dr Carmen Gutierrez, Wesley Breast Clinic Medical Officer

At Wesley Breast Clinic, we meet and provide breast screening for more than 20,000 women of all ages each and every year. It is an area of cancer screening which has advanced rapidly over the past 39 years since the Wesley Breast Clinic opened in 1982.

Dr Carmen GutierrezAdvancements in breast cancer screening are invaluable to us. They have allowed for breast cancers to be detected sooner and contributed to achieving a 91 per cent five-year survival rate for Australian women diagnosed with breast cancer today (Cancer Council).

Every October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we join our colleagues and health services across the country to help raise awareness of the importance of regular breast screening and breast awareness.

As a specialised breast screening clinic, we are able to provide the women who visit us with a comprehensive range of breast care
services, some with same-day results. A combination of clinical examination with one of our doctors, imaging via mammogram, ultrasound or MRI, and breast biopsy when necessary, is what we refer to as the ‘triple test’.

We bring together a specialised team of medical officers, breast care nurses, surgeons, radiographers, sonographers and radiologists, and work closely with specialist pathologists. This allows us the expertise to assess each individual woman we meet, taking into consideration any symptoms, age, family history, lifestyle influences and breast density among other factors, and in turn select the most appropriate screening mix for each individual.

Our IBIS breast cancer risk programme (Tyrer-Cuzick calculator) also assists us to estimate a personal 10 year or lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Since the Clinic started the IBIS program in 2017, it has assessed more than 3,000 women, providing personalised risk profiles and individualised screening programs appropriate for their risk category.

We have also undertaken research, published in the Journal of Medical Imaging and Radiation Oncology, to better understand the importance of the way breast cancers are diagnosed by retrospectively studying all breast cancers diagnosed at the Clinic during a 3-year period.

What we found was that 79 per cent of breast cancers were found through mammogram, but another 20 per cent, or one in five, were diagnosed via breast ultrasound only. In most cases, these breast cancers diagnosed via ultrasound and invisible on mammogram, were small and found in women with dense breast tissue. Fortunately, these small cancers had a better prognosis given their early diagnosis.

Most importantly, this study highlighted the complementary benefits of mammogram and ultrasound examination, especially for women with high breast density. It also confirmed the importance of providing individualised screening for each and every woman we meet based on their personalised risk profile.

We know for many women breast screening can be daunting and they may worry about what might be found. But the most important thing to know is that the earlier a cancer can be found, the more treatment options available – ultimately leading to a better prognosis. Early detection provides the best chance of survival.

An important part of this is for women to be breast aware. It’s important to be familiar with your breasts so that you’re alert to any changes that may occur. I encourage women to regularly check their breasts at home using moisturiser. Women should feel their breasts for any lumps or changes, preferably after their period every two to three months. Regularly checking for lumps, hardening of the breast, redness, changes to the skin, discharge, changes to the nipple or to the size or shape of the breast, will help to spot any changes as soon as they appear.

If you do notice a change, there is no need to panic or worry. Please arrange a visit to your GP for further examination.

Annual breast screening is recommended for women aged 40 to 50 years of age, and every two years for post-menopausal women.

Visit Wesley Breast Clinic for more information.

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