Breasts and cancer

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, I’ve recovered from radiotherapy (harder mentally than surgery because you’re completely exhausted), I’ve travelled to India (will blog more about that later), and it’s almost Christmas.

I’ve been collecting some articles about breast cancer, the cost of treatment, what we die from young (women = breast cancer), how trans people need to be careful of breast cancer, and really what you can do to ensure that you catch cancer early and get it treated quickly.

There is LOTS of news about breast cancer, but very little information (unless you go looking for it) on how to do your own breast check, what is involved in a mammogram, what to worry about, what not to worry about etc.  I see Pinktober all over the place, but useful information is lacking unless you have a good medical practice you talk to or actively go looking for it.  I don’t know what the current sex-ed courses teach about breast (and testicular, ovarian, cervical and uterine) cancer, but all people who have or have had breasts should know how to check their breasts or remainders of breasts for anything unusual.

After all, the main risks for breast cancer is having (or had) breasts, and getting older.  Many of us have that, and as we get old, we need to ensure that we’re checking ourselves out – much like we get regular pap smears, blood pressure checks, STI checks, etc.

It is vital to know what your breasts look and feel like.  You won’t know if there has been any change unless you are as familiar with your breasts as you are with your hands or other visible body part.  There are plenty of good guides on the internet on how to self examine your breasts and changes to look out for.  This one by Breast Cancer Care WA gives tips on what to look out for.  Here is a video with how to do a self examination.

From Breast Cancer Care WA:

What to look for

  • A lump, lumpiness or thickening in the breast or in the armpit. This could be a well-defined lump or an area of firmer or harder tissue compared to the surrounding tissue. It does not have to be tender or sore.
  • Skin changes such as dimpling, puckering or redness.
  • Nipple changes such as an unusual discharge, the nipple pointing in rather than out, or an itchy or ulcerated area.
  • Any part of the breast that feels different.
  • Any unusual or persistent pain.

Don’t be scared, breast cancer in young women is less common. In fact, most lumps found in young women are not cancer but it’s still important that you discuss any changes with your health professional.

I really want to drive home how important it is to screen yourself for cancer.  The table below is from a Guardian article, “What we’re dying from: the leading causes of death in Australia“, and breast cancer makes a surprisingly early appearance.  The earlier you access treatment, the better off you will be.

Now that I’ve brought the mood down… the goodish news.  The Australian medical establishment (ie public hospitals) treat cancer urgently and well.  I have had surgery and 20 sessions of radiotherapy and I am not a cent out of pocket.  I strongly recommend going through the public system if you are ever diagnosed with any form of cancer.  Cancer treatments in the private medical system leave people hugely out of pocket, with one woman out of pocket by $60K, and another (who had private health insurance) out of pocket by $20K.  The public system is your friend, the public system is very very good in treating cancer, and you’ve paid your taxes so you should make use of it.  My discovery is that private health insurance is great for elective or non-urgent medical treatment, terrible for urgent medical treatment.

Clearly this only applies if you can access Medicare.  If you are in Australia and can’t access Medicare, I’d be having a long conversation with your health insurer about what they cover and what they can do to reduce the gap between their payment and the charge by the surgeon/treating team.  Also, still go to a public hospital because even though you may be out of pocket, you’re going to be less out of pocket than if you go to a private hospital or are treated by a private specialist.

One thing the breast cancer research, charities and other associated bodies are not good at is interacting with trans people who have breast cancer.  The material I was provided was incredibly cissexist, though it did recognise that not everyone was straight.  The research industry really hasn’t looked into how breast cancer affects trans people, but there are suggestions that top surgery for trans men may not be sufficient to reduce breast cancer risk depending on the type of surgery performed.  I hope that cancer research broadens their scope into other vulnerable populations because fuck cancer.

I will leave you with a beautiful article about a woman who chose not to have breast reconstruction after cancer (and after reading what is involved, I probably wouldn’t either) and instead went with tattoos.  If I ever lose one or both breasts, I’m going with tattoos too.

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