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Health Topics - Women's Health - Breast Health

Breast health for women is of prime importance. With the incidence of Breast Cancer in New Zealand being very high, the need to examine and be aware of one's own breasts has become a part of everyday health checks. According to the Breast Screen Aotearoa website statistics breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in New Zealand. Each year about 1600 women develop breast cancer and about 580 New Zealand women die from the disease.

  • About one in 10 women in New Zealand will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
  • The risk of breast cancer increases with age. Of those women who get breast cancer, three-quarters are over 50 years of age.
  • Most women who develop breast cancer have no close relatives with the disease. Even among women with a family history of breast cancer, only a very small number will be at high risk.

The National Screening Unit website is a must for further reading on the Breast Screening Programme in New Zealand or telephone 0800 270 200. The Screening Programme promotes having a mammogram and is free for women aged 50 to 69 years. Mammograms are breast x-rays. When you have a mammogram, the radiographer places one breast at a time between two plates on the x-ray machine. The plates hold the breast firmly for a few seconds while the x-rays are taken. This procedure can be uncomfortable, some women find it painful, but it does not harm your breasts.

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Mammogram Testing

  • can detect tissue changes in the breast before anything can be seen or felt. In most cases, any changes detected will not be cancer
  • are particularly effective in women over 50 years of age who have mammograms every two years.
  • can detect about 90% of all unsuspected cancers. However, in some cases an x-ray may indicate that something is not quite right when, in fact, all is well (false positive result. Or an x-ray may fail to pick up a cancer (false negative result).
  • cannot prevent breast cancer, and cannot always prevent death from breast cancer. They can only detect breast cancer - but early detection means early treatment and a better chance of a successful outcome.
  • are relatively safe because only very small amounts of radiation are used.

At Breast Health New Zealand you can find out further information about breast health including doing breast self examinations. Other topics include a family guide, patient awareness guides, breast cancer in men, types of cancer and interventions, and nurturing at the breast. An interesting article on HRT and the increased risk of breast cancer is a must to read also, in light of a large overseas study being stopped (mid 2002) due to the risks to women's health whilst on HRT.

Breast Health New Zealand also has information on the Encore Programme. Encore is a gentle exercise programme for women that is Pool based, run by the YWCA and is available to breast cancer women of any age to help increase fitness and arm movement after surgery. For more information phone phone 0900 Encore visit Breast Health New Zealand website or the YWCA website.

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Signs of Breast Cancer

How often do you examine your breasts? Regular examinations play an important role in detection of changes that occur in the breast tissue. These changes do not always mean that you have cancer, but always follow up anything that you notice with your health professional.

What do I look for?

  • any changes in breast shape or size
  • any lumps or thickenings of your breast
  • pain or sensitivity in the breast that is unusual
  • any change in your nipple or a discharge from your nipple
  • a dimpling or puckering of your breast

What treatment is available if I have breast cancer?
Treatment of breast cancer will vary with every woman. It depends largely upon the type of breast cancer that is found, the size of cancer and if it has spread further and the age and health of the woman.

Treatment can include surgical intervention. This once again varies greatly upon the above factors but can include a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy (partial removal of the breast) or full mastectomy. With surgery other tissue called lymph nodes (part of the body's drainage system) may also be removed.

Further treatment usually follows and includes radiation therapy (Radiotherapy), chemical therapy (Chemotherapy) and hormonal therapy.

Radiotherapy is the use or special x-rays to kill off or shrink the cancer cells. Chemotherapy is the use of medicines to kill cancer cells. Hormonal therapy is the use of hormones that changes the balance of the body. Some breast cancers use the naturally occurring hormone oestrogen to grow.

Where do I go to for help?
Your GP is one of the key health professionals to see initially and throughout your treatment should you need it. Other organisations such as the Cancer Society, Breast Cancer Foundation and the Breast Cancer Network offer excellent support, advice and information. Don't hesitate to use these resources - they are there for you.

You can contact them at:

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Sweet Louise

The Louise Perkins Foundation
The Louise Perkins Foundation is an incorporated charitable trust formed in February 2005.  Sweet Louise is the consumer brand of the Foundation. Their objectives are to improve the well being of anyone living with secondary breast cancer. The aim of the Foundation is to work alongside other organisations that are also doing great work in the breast cancer arena. Sweet Louise services are currently available to those living with secondary breast cancer in the Northland, Auckland, Palmerston North/Mid Central and Wellington areas. They plan to expand throughout the country as resources permit.

Eligibility for Sweet Louise Services
If you have secondary breast cancer, you may be eligible for free access to Sweet Louise services, through their voucher system. 'Secondary breast cancer' (or 'advanced' or 'metastatic') refers to breast cancer that has recurred and spread from its original location to other parts of the body.  Direct voucher services are currently available to women living in the Northland, Auckland, Palmerston North/Mid Central and Wellington areas but as the Louise Perkins Foundation builds its resources and networks with appropriate service providers it is planed to expand to other parts of the country. 

The Louise Perkins Foundation is inspired by the life of Louise Perkins. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27, Louise continued to enjoy a rich and full life. In addition to receiving great medical care, she filled her time with reasons to live. She discovered a myriad of ways that helped her deal with the day to day experiences of breast cancer.

To find out more go to www.sweetlouise.co.nz

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Research for a World Without Breast Cancer
The Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group (ANZBCTG) conducts an independent, collaborative breast cancer clinical trials research program to save lives from breast cancer. 
Clinical trials identify new, safe and effective treatments and treatment strategies for those diagnosed with breast cancer and prevention strategies for all, particularly for women at increased risk. 
They work with researchers throughout Australia, New Zealand and globally to pool resources, avoid duplication, share knowledge and achieve research progress faster for the benefit of all women.
The Breast Cancer Institute of Australia (BCIA) is the fundraising and education department of the ANZBCTG.  Ongoing support for clinical trials research is essential for progress - results can be achieved more quickly, when more funding is available.  
Their aim is to eradicate all suffering from breast cancer and achieve the ultimate goal of “a world without breast cancer.”

For more information visit www.anzbctg.org.

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