Staying Aware Of Breast Cancer Symptoms In The Wake Of Sarah Harding’s Death
This weekend, it was announced that Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding had passed away at just 39 years old after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Harding was one of the millions of people across the globe to be affected by breast cancer, with the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that by the end of 2020, there were 7.8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer.
As many as 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 alone, and there were 685,000 deaths from the disease in the same year.
In a post on Instagram, Harding’s mother, Marie, announced the singer ‘slipped away peacefully’ on Sunday, September 5, and that the 39-year-old had ‘fought so strongly from her diagnosis until her last day’.
Almost everyone will know of someone impacted by cancer, but still it can be hard to accept that everyone is vulnerable to the disease, including men. In fact, according to the WHO, approximately half of breast cancer cases ‘develop in women who have no identifiable breast cancer risk factor other than gender (female) and age (over 40 years)’.
Writing in her autobiography Hear Me Out, Harding herself admitted that she initially put off getting medical advice when she first found lumps under her arm in December 2019.
Per BBC News, she explained that she eventually went to see a doctor who advised her to schedule an MRI scan, but then ‘coronavirus hit and everything either went into slow motion or stopped altogether’.
Harding added, ‘I was aware that I needed to get this health issue sorted, but with everything that was going on, it was tough.’
With life often presenting one hurdle or another, it can be easy to ignore or overlook small changes to your body, but when it comes to your health it is vital not to waste time in seeking the opinions of a professional.
The NHS explains that breast cancer can present with several symptoms, though the first noticeable one is usually a lump or area of thickened breast tissue. Though the majority of breast lumps are not cancerous, having them checked by a doctor can let you find out for certain as soon as possible. If cancer is detected at an early stage, there is a good chance of recovery from the disease.
The WHO states, ‘It is important that women finding an abnormal lump in the breast consult a health practitioner without a delay of more than 1-2 months even when there is no pain associated with it. Seeking medical attention at the first sign of a potential symptom allows for more successful treatment.’
When it comes to checking your breasts, breastcancer.org details looking at your breasts in the mirror with your shoulders straight and your arms on your hips, looking for any ‘dimpling, puckering, or bulging of the skin; a nipple that has changed position or an inverted nipple, or redness, soreness, rash, or swelling’, before raising your arms and looking for the same changes.
Then, feel your breasts while lying down, using ‘a firm, smooth touch with the first few finger pads of your hand, keeping the fingers flat and together. Use a circular motion, about the size of a quarter.’
The site continues:
Cover the entire breast from top to bottom, side to side — from your collarbone to the top of your abdomen, and from your armpit to your cleavage.
Follow a pattern to be sure that you cover the whole breast… Be sure to feel all the tissue from the front to the back of your breasts: for the skin and tissue just beneath, use light pressure; use medium pressure for tissue in the middle of your breasts; use firm pressure for the deep tissue in the back. When you’ve reached the deep tissue, you should be able to feel down to your ribcage.
Finally, feel your breasts while you are standing or sitting. Many women find that the easiest way to feel their breasts is when their skin is wet and slippery, so they like to do this step in the shower.
The NHS lists possible symptoms of breast cancer as ‘a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts; discharge from either of your nipples, which may be streaked with blood; a lump or swelling in either of your armpits; dimpling on the skin of your breasts; a rash on or around your nipple, and a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast’.
Though breast cancer can occur in women at any age after puberty, there are some factors that are known to increase the risk of the diagnosis. Unfortunately, some of these are not avoidable, for example the fact that risk of breast cancer increases with age.
Other factors include a family history of breast cancer, a previous diagnosis of breast cancer, a previous non-cancerous breast lump, being tall, overweight or obese, and drinking alcohol. Breast cancer is not a transmissible or infectious disease.
When it comes to reducing the risk of breast cancer, the WHO lists: regular physical activity; weight control; the avoidance of harmful use of alcohol; avoidance of exposure to tobacco smoke; prolonged breastfeeding; avoidance of prolonged use of hormones, and avoidance of excessive radiation exposure.
However, while these factors may go some way into reducing the risks of breast cancer, the WHO notes that ‘even if all of the potentially modifiable risk factors could be controlled, this would only reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by at most 30%’.
As many as 90% of breast masses are not cancerous, but doctors requiring further information will likely refer patients to a specialist breast cancer screening, where you may undergo breast screening (mammography) or have a small sample of breast tissue taken for examination.
Mammographic screening involves having an X-ray image of the breast taken, and is the most commonly available way of finding an early change in breast tissue. If breast cancer is detected, it can be treated using a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, with treatment achieving survival probabilities of 90% or higher, according to the WHO.
The possibility of being diagnosed with cancer is a terrifying concept, and one that sadly all too many people are familiar with.
As much as I’d like to say otherwise, staying aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease does not guarantee survival after a diagnosis. However, with early detection going a long way in improving chances, regularly checking yourself for lumps, swelling or other unexpected changes, and seeking the opinion of a doctor as soon as possible, is paramount.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00, 8am–8pm seven days a week