What if you were living your best life and then suddenly you received news that would change your life for ever?
For one in eight women, this is a reality. Cancer does not discriminate, it doesn’t care what you look like or what you do for a living. American actresses, Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate, are two high-profile people affected by breast cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer.
So what exactly causes it and why are some people more susceptible to it than others?
Professor Iain MacPherson, a medical oncologist at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in Glasgow, explained the reasons why cancer happens.
“It’s caused when the DNA inside a cell becomes mutated. This affects how the proteins that are made by the DNA work.”
Everyone’s DNA cells are mutated but it’s only when they can’t repair themselves that cancer is most likely to form.
But why were Jolie and Applegate affected by this despite their young age? Well, we know that cancer can affect anyone at any age, but we also know that breast cancer is more common in older women.
Christina Applegate was only 36 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She tested positive for the BRCA 1 and 2 mutation gene which Jolie also tested positive for. Both Jolie and Applegate decided to get a double mastectomy to lower their chances of getting breast cancer. Christina went one stage further and had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed too, as the BRCA 1 gene can also affect your chances of getting ovarian and cervical cancer.
BRCA 1 and 2 are two types of genes within our body. If you happen to inherit a BRCA 1 gene, then every cell in your body would have a faulty copy as we have two copies of every gene. However, if the BRCA 1 gene affected the healthy copy, then the cell does not have the protein required to repair damage to the DNA. If this happens then the cell can no longer repair the damage and therefore the cells will mutate and likely turn into a cancerous cell causing cancer.
There have been a lot of media campaigns around breast cancer and how women should be checking themselves. This self-checking and awareness around the signs of cancer are vital in early detection which saves lives.
The most common sign of cancer being present in the breast is noticing a lump. This lump is normally painless and hard. If a young woman has noticed a lump in her breast, it is most likely to be a cyst or a something called a fibroadenoma, which is a type of benign kind of firm lump that can appear in the breast. It is worth noting that if you spot anything that is not normal, go to your GP to get it checked out.
Other signs or symptoms of breast cancer can be a change in the appearance of the breast. For example, a dimpling or pulling in of the skin where it had been smooth before, changes in the nipple such as discharge or an inversion of the nipple can be a sign of breast cancer. An inflammation of the breast is a rare sign of cancer, however, this could just be down to an infection and will likely disappear with antibiotics.
There is no right or wrong way to check your breasts. It’s best to do it when you are relaxed and you can even do it in the shower or bath.
Prof MacPherson said:
“Make sure when examining the breasts not just to focus on the breast itself but to continue going backwards and right up into the armpit.”
He also added that you should move your hand in a circular motion around the breast whilst pressing down slightly to feel if there is anything abnormal. Also work your way up to the collarbone as that it is where the top of the breast forms.
There are many factors that can cause breast cancer and there are things you can do to lower the risk of developing it.
MacPherson said that being physically active and avoiding being overweight can help. Alcohol consumption above recommended limits increases the risk of breast cancer and certain hormonal things can increase the risks, for example, the oral contraceptive pill increases the risk of breast cancer. However, the risk of getting breast cancer from taking the contraceptive pill is very small and the risks stop within a few years of stopping taking the pill.
Although Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate were diagnosed with breast cancer, they didn’t let it take over their lives. In fact, they are thriving.
Maybe we can learn something from these two women as they have proven that we can all overcome cancer no matter what our status in life. It’s nothing to be frightened of and we should all embrace the challenges we face in life.
Hannah is 22 years old and studying Media and Communications in Glasgow. She has her own blog and also creates content for Unite Students on their YouTube channel.
www.thedalyhannah.co.uk / Instagram: @hannahrdaly / Twitter: @hannahdalry3
Intro art by Meg Garrod - (instagram: @meggarrod.art)
Thanks to Professor Iain MacPherson at Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.