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Mammograms are an essential aid to the detection of breast cancer, but cancerous cells can be missed, particularly among the under-50 age group
One of the best ways to overcome cancer, we are constantly being told, is either to prevent it or at least to catch it before it has had a chance to develop. This is particularly true of breast cancer.
Fortunately great strides are constantly being made. One of the biggest problems with mammograms is that cancerous cells can be missed, particularly in younger people where the tissues are much denser. But now there is a blood test which can do the same job. BCtect can identify if you have breast cancer, which is particularly good news for anyone under 50, where a mammogram might not detect anything.
However, oncologist Dr James Mackay of the London Breast Clinic in Harley Street says that it is not 100 per cent accurate. "You still need to have a mammogram," he says, but undergoing both investigations will increase the probability of finding cancerous cells.
The blood test, which was discovered by a team of scientists in Norway, is as yet only available at the London Breast Clinic and not on the NHS. "They are evaluating it", he says "but the likelihood is that it will not be mainstream for at least another five years".
While in other western countries, tests are available on a yearly basis, the NHS only offers breast cancer checks every three years, and in most cases only to those over 50. According to Dr Mackay, it is advisable to have a test every year although this would need to be done privately.
There are also ways to prevent cancer in the first place, according to Lester Barr, a breast surgeon and chairman of the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal, a UK charity dedicated to its prevention.
Being 'breast aware' is a priority. That is, knowing how to examine yourself, about screening, and dealing with any risk factors in your life. If someone is overweight, the priority, for a multitude of reasons, is to lose weight, and then eat a healthy balanced diet.
It is essential that having lost weight, it is maintained at a healthy level. Exercise is also important. Everyone should aim for 30 minutes every day.
This has a beneficial effect through hormone balance as well as helping to maintain a healthy weight. A book, The Genesis Breast Cancer Diet written by Research Dietician Dr Michelle Harvie, summarises all the evidence and recommends the best diet to reduce the risk of cancer.
Harvie emphasises the importance of keeping the diet going, even after the cancer has gone, to reduce the risk of it recurring. Although the book was written in 2006, she confirms that evidence now shows that what was thought at that time is still relevant, and now even more supported.
Although breast cancer has not been linked to any one particular food, there are concerns about saturated animal fat. Nuts, olive oil and oily fish are high on the list of items to eat as is white fish, lean meat, pulses and whole grains. Foods to limit include refined carbohydrates, sugary snacks such as biscuits and cake plus white bread and crisps. Many people think that they should avoid dairy foods. High fat items such as butter, cream and high fat are not good. However, low fat dairy foods such as semi-skimmed milk, low fat cheeses and yoghurts are thought to be beneficial.
Drinking too much alcohol has also been linked with cancer. Limit your intake to 14 units a week or one alcoholic drink a day.
Women should aim to stop using the contraceptive pill at 30. Breast-feeding is protective, and recommended for six months. Hormone replacement therapy should be limited.
The good news is that the accuracy and availability of gene testing is improving.
Genetic testing is usually only given to people who have close family with either breast or ovarian cancer. If members of your family have had either type of cancer, particularly a mother or sister under 50, then ask your doctor to be tested.
Advances have recently been made with a new class of cancer chemotherapy drug PARP-inhibitors which has been found to work on women who carry the BRCA1 or 2 genes. In some populations, particularly Jews, it is not necessary to look at the whole gene sequences, just three specific faults.
If you carry one of these faulty genes, there is a greater risk that you could develop either breast or ovarian cancer. The benefit of this drug is that it only attacks the cancer cells and not, as other types of chemotherapy drugs have done, normal cells.