Breast cancer is a huge health threat – find out how to fight it

As October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, find out the symptoms, risks and how you can join the fight

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Whether it’s a mother, daughter, grandmother or friend, many of us will have had our lives touched by breast cancer in some way.

And with one in eight of us in the UAE likely to contract the disease, it’s clear that awareness and knowledge are crucial in our fight for prevention.

As October begins and the UAE stands with the rest of the world to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we talk with experts and survivors of the disease on the symptoms, risks and why ten minutes could save your life.

Spotting the signs

“In the UAE, breast cancer is the most common [type of cancer] among women and the likelihood of having the disease is about 12.5 percent,” explains Dr Mourad Habib, family medicine consultant at Intercare Health Center.

“Everyone is different,” he adds, “but the most common symptom is a lump. We also look for changes in the skin or feel of the breast, such as indentation. There might be changes to the nipple, such as secretions or bloody discharge.”

With other symptoms ranging from fatigue and weight loss to nipple inversion, Dr Mourad is keen to highlight that pain, although possible, is not always cause for concern.

“Breast pain is a common issue in women and often makes people alarmed, but it’s not a common cancer presentation,” he notes.

Current guidelines from the Department of Health recommend that women over 40 years old be screened for the disease every two years, but Dr Mourad underlines that monthly self-checks and early detection are a crucial part of the process.

“You need to be aware of your body,” he emphasises. “Don’t be fearful of it, but equally do not ignore changes. The most important thing is that if you see any changes, don’t wait. Consult your family physician, and not Dr Google.”

Red flags

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Gender, race, family history and lifestyle can all have a role in the contraction of the disease, says Dr Mourad, but there are some instances where it may be more common.

“If a woman starts menstruation early and experiences the menopause late, this could make her more susceptible – it’s what we call a long oestrogen window,” Dr Mourad comments.

Young women are also at risk to contract more aggressive forms of the disease, while certain ethnicities, such as Afro-Caribbean, may be more susceptible.

And when Angelina Jolie famously underwent a preventative double mastectomy in 2013, she highlighted another risk that could be lurking in our DNA.

“Ten percent of breast cancer overall is related to genetics,” Dr Mourad says. “It comes from gene mutations, particularly the BRCA1 and BRCA2 types.”

But with the arrival of genetic testing techniques in the UAE, we now have an even better chance of detecting and beating the disease early.

“The process only requires a blood sample,” Dr Mourad explains. “If there’s mutation, it increases the likelihood of getting breast cancer from 12.5 percent to around 60
percent – that’s five-fold.

“It puts your mind at ease if it’s negative,” he continues. “If it does end up being positive, you have a better chance for earlier prevention and protection.”

Fighting back

While it may seem for some like our fate is sealed, the good news is that small changes now can make a huge difference.

“There are ways to prevent it, and these involve looking into your lifestyle and making adjustments,” Dr Mourad recommends. “Avoid smoking, practise good eating habits
and maintain an active lifestyle – these are beneficial.”

Dr Mourad also advises balancing stress levels, as well as swapping processed fats for natural sources, like avocado and nuts.

“If you make a change for one day, you might not feel any different, but over time – maybe five years – this will help your body,” he says.

But with fear a common reason as to why women might not head for a check-up, Dr Mourad wants to beat the stigma surrounding screening.

“People are very afraid of things they don’t know,” he reflects. “The screening is very confidential. A professional, who has helped so many other women, will help you, and you will get the results within a day.

“All it takes is ten minutes,” he pauses. “That ten minutes could save a life.”

To find out more about Intercare Health Center, contact: 02 639 0080,
intercare-health.com

Survivor story

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Naida Kardas remembers exactly where she was the moment she found out she had breast cancer while living in the US.

“It was 2009, I was 21 years old,” she recalls. “They called me at work, while I was standing in my classroom with children. They just said ‘yep – it’s cancer’ – that was it. They just left me there; I had no idea what type or stage it was.”

Naida found a lump on her left side, but when doctor after doctor told her not to worry due to her young age, she found herself fighting to be taken seriously.

“They told me to wait for my pap smear, which was two months away,” Naida says. “Everyone kept telling me not to worry about it, that I was too young. They wouldn’t even send me for a mammogram.

“But when I moved my arm, I could feel something, it was uncomfortable,” she adds. “If it wasn’t so uncomfortable, I don’t think I would have fought so hard. Besides the lump, I had no side effects.”

An ultrasound followed by a biopsy proved Naida’s suspicions were correct: the cancer was fast growing, and it was aggressive.

After undergoing genetic testing she began brachytherapy, a type of radiation therapy that only targets the cancerous tissue, before starting hormone therapy to induce a five-year menopause.

“It’s almost like I was watching someone else – it didn’t seem real, it didn’t feel like it was me,” she reflects.

After eight years in remission, Naida is philosophical about what happened, but her conviction in herself remains unshakeable.

“Always trust yourself,” she comments. “Age is not a factor, and if I hadn’t checked, I wouldn’t be here today.

“Now it’s not the same as before,” Naida adds. “There have been so many advancements; even mammograms are so quick.

“If you look at me, you can’t tell I’ve had this many surgeries and radiation therapy. There are no scars.

“Every year, when I go for my mammogram, I still get nervous,” she confesses. “Even me, I like to think I’m pretty strong, but I still get nervous. What if it does come back?

“But, it’s been eight years, and I’m good,” she smiles. “If you catch it early, look at what you can do.

“If you are diagnosed, it doesn’t have to be terrifying,” Naida adds. “Women should trust themselves when they feel like there’s something wrong with their body. No matter what, remember what drives you – whether that’s your family or something else. Think of that.”

Spreading awareness

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Annual holistic event Reaching Out with Reiki returns on 6th October with healing sessions for cancer survivors and autoimmune patients of all ages and
stages of treatment. Free. NMC Royal Hospital, Khalifa City. 1pm-6pm. Visit: facebook.com/reachingoutwithreiki

Lace up for the ADCB Zayed Sports City Pink 5&10K Run on 13th October. AED 120. Proceeds help Al Jalila Foundation. From 7am. Visit: premieronline.com

Dine for a good cause at Southern Sun Abu Dhabi’s Pink Brunch on 20th October, where 15 percent of the profits will be donated to Pink Caravan, as well as proceeds from merchandise sales. From AED 229++. Al Mina Street, Al Zahiyah. 12.30pm–4pm. Contact: 02 818 4888, facebook.com/ssabudhabi

Throughout the month, Burjeel Hospital will be offering health screenings including BMI and body composition analysis, as well as sessions on nutrition, self-checking and early detection. Free. Times and dates vary. Contact: 02 508 5555, burjeel.com

All proceeds from The Nail Spa’s breast cancer themed nail art will go towards supporting Pink Caravan throughout October. From AED 15. Various locations, including Al Wahda Mall, Hazza Bin Zayed Street. Daily 10am–10pm. Contact: 600 544 001, thenailspa.com

Tips&Toes will be teaching customers about the symptoms, risks and methods of self-examination at a special session on 19th October at Mohammed Bin Zayed City, as well as offering the chance to receive a private examination from an expert. Book the mani/pedi of the month and a 30-minute head and shoulder massage, and a percentage of the cost will go towards sponsoring the chemotherapy treatment of UAE resident Nahla Sherif, who has been battling cancer since 2014. Various locations. Contact: 02 564 1880, tipsandtoes.com

WORDS Camille Hogg
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