By Karina Bukuri
It is the first day of breast cancer awareness month and the first time I am celebrating. Being 19 and diagnosed with a non-cancerous breast tumor really changes something in you, it sorts of shifts your perspective on things. By saying this, I don’t mean the dramatic, ‘I think I am gonna die’ or ‘I suddenly started appreciating things’. No! I only mean that after facing something that had even the tiniest, slightest possibility of developing into something worthy of concern I simply became more aware. I suddenly saw the point in self-checking, in paying a regular visit to the GP, in wearing a pink ribbon, in talking about the importance of women’s health and the prevalence of breast cancer. And although my story was minor, fortunate, and benign it did instill in me a sense of responsibility, as I became a part of a bigger narrative, of an ongoing conversation about women’s health.
In this short article, I don’t want to delve into my medical history or rant about the scariness of it all, I just want to emphasize how important it is to stay aware of the possible risks, practice self-checks, and seek professional help in cases of doubt. I want to draw your attention, as done by many fundraisers and annual activist campaigns, towards the common problem and the ways in which you can help to ensure safety of yourself and others- by breaking the stigma around women’s specific health conditions, by raising general awareness and, of course, if possible in your financial circumstances, by donating.
According to the Dutch Health Statistics, about 17 thousand Dutch women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer annually (Borstkanker.nl, 2019). Invasive in this context means that cancer is actively spreading into surrounding tissue and needs to be treated (Volksgezondheidenzorg. info). If translated into simpler numbers, this means that 1 out of 7 Dutch women (who reaches the age of 80) suffer from invasive breast cancer every year (van Der Waal and colleagues, 2015). The statistics are striking but for many won’t be new. What is truly alarming, however, is the knowledge that about 40% of women also develop some types of non-cancerous breast tumors (the one that I dealt with for instance) (see BCI). And a large part of this group consists of young women between the ages of 15 and 25 who undergo rapid hormonal changes and are less resilient to stress (American Cancer Society). Of course, non-cancerous abnormalities are not life-threatening and might never develop into cancer, although such possibility remains thus patients need to be put under regular examinations of their local mammologist.
By bringing these numbers I don’t intend to scare but rather inform you that many young women who faced such difficulties (including myself) were able to detect them at an early stage through self-examination. And here I don’t mean you should obsess over every dense area in your boob possibly being cancer- no, most of your ‘lumps’ are totally normal! I rather encourage you to carefully listen to your body, find what is normal for you, and always even with the slightest concern check-in with a professional.
What struck me the most in my journey was not at all the diagnosis but rather my ignorance in the area of women’s health, especially my unfamiliarity with the issues specific to my age group. I did not know how common it was for younger women to develop benign tumors. I was not aware of the fact that breast cancer can be diagnosed in women starting from the age of 25 (Volksgezondheidenzorg. info). And I was not the only one. Several studies have shown that many women remain unaware of the diversity of breast conditions and the practice of self-examination (Boston Women’s Collective 1973, Karayurt 2008, Ashraf & colleagues 2020).
The subject of women’s health is truly important as lack of knowledge poses a threat of staying unaware of the potential risks. Below I want to share some useful sources for self-education in the area of women’s health, especially in the field of breast cancer. This includes some medical information on breast & ovarian cancer, instructions for self- examination and regular medical checks. I also attached links to some of the biggest both global and Netherlands-based breast cancer fundraising organizations that invest not only in patients who lack opportunities for a decent treatment but also into the promotional and educational components of the issue. It is important to break the stigma and talk about breast cancer since nobody is untouchable and since there are measures that can be taken to try and ensure one’s safety. If you are not able to donate (which is totally understandable), you can share this information with someone who might or with someone who knows who might! Stay safe everybody and let’s help each other battle the common enemy!
Pink Ribbon– Dutch fundraising company, part of the Dutch Cancer Society that funds scientific research and projects in the field of breast cancer treatment https://www.voorpinkribbon.nl/acties
KWF: Kankerbestrijding- the biggest cancer-related fundraiser in the Netherlands which has a section related to breast cancer (borstkanker). The organization invests in scientific research in the field of cancer, makes individual donations for both current and post-cancer patients. There are possibilities for volunteering and joining fundraising events like marathons.
Breast Cancer Research Foundation– a global fundraiser completely preoccupied with issues of breast cancer. Provides a wide range of opportunities to offer help from small donations of 5 $ to helping setting out your own local fundraiser. https://www.bcrf.org/get-involved
American Breast Cancer Foundation- US-based charity that focuses mainly on helping patients who cannot afford treatment for breast cancer. Additionally, it invests in research and education in the field of breast cancer. https://www.abcf.org/about
Educational Resources for Getting Familiar with Breast Cancer:
A lot of up to date information on breast & ovarian cancer, women’s health, treatment in the Netherlands.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Find information on risk factors for breast cancer.
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
Find information on risk factors for breast cancer.
Offers online social support for young women who consider genetic testing for inherited gene mutations related to breast & ovarian cancer.
American National Cancer Institute
Find information on different types of breast cancers as well as other types of tumors that can occur in the breast.
American Cancer Society. ‘Fibroadenomas of the Breast’. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/non-cancerous-breast-conditions/fibroadenomas-of-the-breast.html
Ashraf, S. S., Sultan, M. M., Rahi, S., Mir, I. M., Ali, A., Nazim, N., & Bhat, B. A. (2020). Breast Health: Knowledge, Attitude and Practice of Breast Self-examination among Female Undergraduate Students of Kashmir Valley.
BCI. ‘Breast Cyst’. Retrieved from: https://www.bci.org.au/breast-cancer-information/fact-sheets/breast-cysts/
Borstkanker.nl, (2019). ‘Cijfers over borstkanker’. Retrieved from: https://borstkanker.nl/nl/cijfers-over-borstkanker%20%20
Collective, Boston Women’s Health Book. Our Bodies, Ourselves A Book By and For Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Karayurt, Ö., Özmen, D., & Çetinkaya, A. Ç. (2008). Awareness of breast cancer risk factors and practice of breast self-examination among high school students in Turkey. BMC public health, 8(1), 359.
KWF. (2020). ‘1 Oktober Start Borstkankermaand: borstkanker heeft vele gezichten’ https://www.kwf.nl/pers/1-oktober-start-borstkankermaand-borstkanker-heeft-vele-gezichten
van Der Waal, D., Verbeek, A. L., Den Heeten, G. J., Ripping, T. M., Tjan-Heijnen, V. C., & Broeders, M. J. (2015). Breast cancer diagnosis and death in the Netherlands: a changing burden. The European Journal of Public Health, 25(2), 320-324.
Volksgezondheidenzorg.info. ‘Borskanker: Cijfers & Context’. Retrieved from: https://www.volksgezondheidenzorg.info/onderwerp/borstkanker/cijfers-context/sterfte-en-overleving#definitie–node-histologische-indeling-0