B is for Breast Health.
With age, our cells change, especially when affected by environmental pollutants and unhealthy diets and lifestyles. This puts us at a much higher risk of serious disease, including breast cancer. Being vigilant to any changes you may experience, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and going for regular screenings will lower your risk.
Dr Carol-Ann Benn is head of the Netcare Breast Care Centre and the Helen Joseph Breast Centre, and professor of surgery at the University of the Witwatersrand. She advises: “Know your body; understand it and seek help if you feel ‘things have changed’. “Cysts are also seen more commonly as women age,” she adds. “Although cysts or non-cancerous lumps cannot become cancers, we don’t have eyes on our fingers – so what we feel may not actually represent what’s there. Women with cystic or lumpy breasts should have an ultrasound twice a year.”
There’s no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but you can lower the risk factors that are under your control. Many women with breast cancer have no symptoms, so regular screening is important.
“See your doctor annually for a women’s health check-up, from your 20s, or from when you become sexually active,” says Benn.
“Remember, if you find a symptom such as pain, a mass or a nipple discharge, you need to see a doctor and insist on an age-appropriate investigation.” Usually an ultrasound is necessary if you are under 40, and a mammogram as well as an ultrasound if you are over 40.
Leading an overall healthy lifestyle is essential for supporting your breast tissue, as well as your overall breast health. This involves not smoking, limiting your UV and infrared exposure, hydrating with a good moisturizer, ensuring proper bra support, maintaining a steady body weight and exercising regularly.
As your breasts change over time, the two main contributors are skin aging and the hormonal changes of menopause. Skin aging is associated with a decrease in collagen, elastin and hydration levels. Dr Marisse Venter is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with a special interest in breast reconstruction and cosmetic surgery at the Breast Care Centre of Excellence at Netcare Milpark Hospital. She explains: “The loss of these vital components results in the stretching and thinning of skin that envelops both your breasts and the ligaments inside your breasts.”
Once this process has occurred, your breasts begin to develop stretch marks, and move downward and outward with gravity. This natural aging process can often be accelerated by environmental factors, especially sun damage. Menopause can increase your breast volume and body mass index, which increases your breast mass as well. The combination of the weight and loss of support from your skin and internal structures further accentuates the effects of gravity, resulting in a generalized downward movement of your breasts.
Menopause can also increase your likelihood of developing cysts and an overall “lumpy” appearance to your breasts. This is due to hormonal changes that cause the glands in your breasts to degenerate and be replaced by fatty tissue, which forms cysts.
If you want to rejuvenate your breasts, you should first understand your desired outcome. Although non-invasive strategies may help with minor deformities, significant change requires surgery. Here are some options:
1. To decrease breast volume or size, you may want to consider area-specific liposuction, a breast reduction or the removal of previous implants.
2. To combat drooping or sagging, a mastopexy (otherwise known as a breast lift) would be appropriate.
3. Implants are the most effective method known for volume restoration.
4. Skin quality and appearance can be greatly improved with the use of laser therapy, especially for visible stretch marks.
The decision to have plastic surgery is personal, and you will have to decide if the benefits are worth the potential risks.
The risks associated with breast reconstructive and plastic surgery include changes in nipple or breast sensation, breast contour and shape irregularities, unfavorable scarring, skin discoloration, swelling and bruising.
A serious concern associated with breast implants is the possible risk of a rupture. You can mitigate this risk by learning how to choose the best plastic surgeon and implant for you. Visit an ethical, objective website such as www.fda.gov for information; do your own research on the implants available, including those used by your surgeon of choice.
Like many aspects of our health and wellbeing, taking care of our breasts requires more time and patience as we age. Always remember to consult a trustworthy professional for the most reliable advice.