Breast cancer – when it’s a scare vs the real thing

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Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women in South Africa
Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women in South Africa
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Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among South African women.

One in 28 South African women will develop breast cancer in the course of a lifetime, according to National Health Laboratory statistics.

The thought of being one of those 28 is a scary one, especially if you examine your breasts one morning and feel a lump.

A young South African woman shares her fear of being diagnosed with cancer and how her life has changed since then.

Just another day

It was a normal day at home with her family when Lerato Mofokeng’s* older sister came into her room and sat on her bed for a chat.

“I can’t exactly remember what was happening because it was a few years ago when I was still in matric. But my sister leant on me as I was lying on my bed and she felt the lump and asked what it was.”

Lerato didn’t have an answer because she’d never examined her breasts before and wasn’t aware of the lump.

“I never thought I would ever be affected by breast cancer so I was ignorant about frequently examining my breasts. I was only 17 at the time and even though I knew about it, I had ruled myself out. That all changed very quickly.”

She says she got the scare of her life when her sister freaked out and she felt it for herself and realised what it could mean.

When she told her mother, they consulted with their family doctor.

Read more| I SURVIVED | Local breast cancer survivor speaks about beating cancer at the age of 31

Under the knife for the first time

“I was told I had to get a biopsy and get the lump removed for them to actually know whether it was cancerous or not.

“It was 2015 and I had never been admitted to a hospital for anything, let alone an operation. I had to go through all that and wait for the results.

“There’s a history of cancer on my mother’s side of the family, so I thought the chances of me having it were high and I was very scared.”

Everyone around her was nervous, including her mother, who got chills whenever she thought about the possibility of having to watch her child go through the trauma of breast cancer.

A deep sigh of relief

“I was relieved when the results came back negative, but I couldn’t help feeling afraid of what the other outcome could’ve been or how I would have handled it because I was still so young.

“But then I snapped out of it when I thought about all the people who had different endings to their stories and I realised how privileged I was.”

Lerato lives knowing that anything can happen and things might still change for her, given her family history and the fact she had another cancer scare in March of this year – in her thyroid this time.

She tells Drum she is thankful for her life more than ever because of the possibility of what could have been.

Read more| Cape Town woman on fighting to survive non-Hodskins Lymphoma cancer and how running has saved her

An expert weighs in

It’s important to try to stay as calm as possible, says Dr Justus Apffelstaedt, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health and soft tissue surgical oncology.

“Walking in as a healthy woman and potentially being diagnosed with cancer is an experience that induces a lot of anxiety. So, while it may be difficult, it is important to try to relax as much as possible.

“Knowledge is power, and the more women understand about breast cancer, the more likely they will be able to identify it early and minimise the risk of mortality.”

Dr Apffelstaedt says there’s been a rapid decline of breast cancer mortality in countries with access to first-rate healthcare.

“With early detection and effective treatment breast cancer can be transformed from the dreaded disease that kills about half of those suffering from it to a disease that can be managed successfully with excellent prospects for long-term survival.”

Once a lump can be felt in your breast, Dr Apffelstaedt says the disease has already been present for about five years, and your best option is a mammogram.

“Physical examination by a doctor or a specially trained nurse cannot, on its own, decrease the rate of breast cancer mortality. Regular self-breast examinations, thermography, and other alternative methods do not have the capability of detecting breast cancer in the early, crucial stages, in the same way a mammogram does.”

* Not her real name

What signs should I look out for?
  • Lumps of any size or thickening of the breast tissue.
  • Changes in the shape of the breast or persistent discomfort.
  • Discharge from the nipple that is not associated with pregnancy or breast feeding.
A 3-step approach to breast health

A life-long breast-care programme should include:

  1. Breast Self-Exam: examine your breasts one week after your period ends. It is easy to do and only takes a few minutes. You will detect changes in your breast more easily.
  2. Clinical Breast Exam: your breast health professional will check your breasts and can demonstrate the proper technique to you.
  3. Mammography: A mammogram is a low dose X-ray of your breasts. It can detect many breast changes that are too small or too deep to feel. Good mammograms are safe, quick and painless.


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