How to prevent breast cancer

How to prevent breast cancer

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Two years ago, I wrote about my decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. A simple blood test had revealed that I carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene. It gave me an estimated 87 per cent risk of breast cancer and a 50 per cent risk of ovarian cancer.

“I lost my mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer. I wanted other women at risk to know about the options. I promised to follow up with any information that could be useful, including about my next preventive surgery, the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes,” Angelina Jolie Pitt says, in her book titled ‘Diary of a Surgery’.

Cancer of the breast is the commonest cancer in women. Generally speaking, the core factor causing the disease is oestrogen. Yet, it’s a necessary hormone that helps to maintain the female appearance.

Risk factors

A woman risks developing breast cancer if a member of her family, such as the grandmother, mother or sister, has had it. The risk tends to be higher among women who have never breast-fed babies.

A woman with no history of advanced pregnancy also stands a risk because progesterone tends to shield the breast from the harmful effect of the oestrogen.

People who are obese or who do not engage in physical exercise are also at risk; just as those who use oral contraceptive pills, especially the ones that contain high amounts of oestrogen.

Menopause, poor nutritional habits, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption may expose a woman to breast cancer.

Also, environmental factors that tend to change the genetic make-up of the individual can predispose their victims to breast cancer.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Usually, there is a lump or growth. If you notice a growth on any of your breasts, take action immediately, as it may become bigger and spread to other parts of the body. There could be ulceration of the skin from the growth area. There could also be a discharge from the nipple or bleeding.

The covering skin of the breast could be distorted and appear like orange skin. The armpit on the affected side could be involved and become swollen. In a very rare situation, the signs described above may not be so obvious until it is too late.

Male breast cancer

One per cent of breast cancers occurs in men. Swollen male breast may, however, be due to alcohol misuse and other reasons. Men should take similar precautions as women as recommended here.


Vigilance is essential to preventing breast cancer. A simple once-a-week self-examination of the breasts could save a life. Health professionals could teach women how to conduct this examination. Doctors and nurses can also examine the breast from time to time. In suspicious cases and in every woman above 40 years, mammography once a year is recommended. This can be combined with sonography if required.

In women (and men with family history of prostate cancer) who have family history of breast, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, it is highly recommended that they have a genetic test (BRAC1 and BRAC2) done to reveal their vulnerability to breast cancer.


Anyone who has a breast growth or abnormal discharge should contact a qualified doctor as soon as possible for assessment. Treatment may include surgery to remove part of the affected breast or both breasts. Other treatments include radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Cervical cancer

The cervix is the thick muscular support at the neck of the womb. The purpose of the cervix is to support the pregnancy from early loss. Containing a channel at its centre, to a large extent, the cervix also controls what goes into the womb.

Cancer of the cervix is among the commonest cancers in women. Although the disease is killing many women annually, it is preventable. Unlike breast cancer, which is common among women who are over 40 years, cervical cancer can hit anyone who is sexually active. Thus, to some extent, cancer of the cervix can be regarded as a sexually transmitted disease.

Cancer of the uterine cervix is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women worldwide — second only to breast cancer. The number of new cases of cervical cancer in the world per year is estimated at 500,000 and about 79 per cent occur in the developing countries, including Nigeria.


Close to 70-90 per cent percent of cervical cancer is caused by viral infection called human papilloma virus.

Risk factors

This is sexually transmissible from sexual partners. Those who keep multiple sexual partners and smokers – even passive smokers – stand the risk of contracting the disease.

Signs and symptoms of cervical cancer

The sufferer may not know that she has contracted the disease until it is too late. There may be bleeding during sexual intercourse, inter-menstrual bleeding or foul vaginal discharge.

In advanced cases, pain may occur in the lower abdomen. Also, swelling of the abdomen may occur. Other organs may be affected, such as the lungs, liver and brain in the individuals where the disease has spread. There may be weight loss and anaemia.


Teenage girls (and boys) can now be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus from the age of 13 to under 26. Screening for cervical cancer every three years (Pap Smear) is highly recommended in any girl who is sexually active.

Abstinence from sex and the use of barrier protection (condom) are likely to prevent the occurrence of cancer of the cervix. Also, sticking to a faithful partner will reduce the chance of developing cancer of the cervix.

This piece was written by a gynaecologist, Dr. Joel Akande, a fertility specialist.

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