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  • Writer's pictureFoundational Breast Care

Early detection of breast cancer is not early enough

Since the late 80s, deaths due to breast cancer have dropped in number by more than 40%. Mainstream medicine has made huge steps with improvements in its screening technology and treatment approach. These medical advancements have even resulted in less use of the extreme forms of medical intervention: less surgery, less radiation and less chemotherapy.

But the world outlook on breast cancer is still nothing short of devastating, as the World Health Organisation reported 2 million new cases of breast cancer and 627,000 female deaths from breast cancer (that’s 1,718 women every day) in 2018 alone. And in spite of the increase in survival rates, an equivalent decrease in new cases being diagnosed is far from a reality, as figures are expected to rise well into 2030.

Medicine does not yet know why most cancers occur, does not know why some breast cancers can suddenly metastasise (spread to other parts of the body) and become fatal, nor why some women’s cancers return after treatment and others’ don’t. Survival rate figures are beginning to slow and new cases continue to rise, there is still much work to be done.

There is no question the focus in recent years on early detection in breast cancer awareness campaigns has saved lives. But concerns abound about false negative and positive results, over-diagnosis and excessive medical intervention, and the uptake of breast cancer screening rates falling in some countries (UK).

With so many new cases of breast cancer diagnosed every year, and rates in the traditionally low risk areas of young women and men on the rise, are we asking the right questions?

Is our current ‘early’ detection early enough?

Are we ignoring common indicators that signpost someone living in a way that may lead to breast cancer, but dismiss these signs because they are not yet measurable by our current technology?

Early detection approaches to date have been based on methods of screening or self-checking that rule out tangible signs that the disease has already begun in the body. In other words, we start from the disease and work backwards. Once these physical signs are ruled out, the woman is safe from cancer. But only for now, as the anxiousness of a breast cancer diagnosis continues to loom until the next exam.

Is there more we could be aware of in the prevention of breast cancer between the early detection activities, like self breast testing and medical screening?

Current prevention recommendations are based on the observation of some common lifestyle choices and behaviours, typically recommending:

  • Maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle - healthy weight and activity level

  • Don’t smoke

  • Limit hormonal therapy (birth control, fertility treatments, menopause)

  • Limit alcohol

  • Avoid exposure to radiation (medical imaging and environmental)

  • Breastfeed more

  • Have children, and earlier

If the focus on these was enough, why are new cases still rising? How do we account for the health conscious women who meet all the above recommendations and yet still get breast cancer? How do we account for the women who don’t live the above and don’t get breast cancer?

At the moment, self care is typically associated with the recovery stage, after treatment for breast cancer, rather than prevention of breast cancer. What if those very same things we drew attention to in recovery, we raised awareness about in our prevention education campaigns:

  • make space for yourself

  • caring for you is caring for others, it guarantees the quality you care for them in

  • communicate, share how you’re feeling, you don’t have to go it alone

  • meditate, stay connected

  • eat healthy

  • be gentle with yourself

  • exercise gently and regularly

  • support yourself to sleep well

It’s all too common to hear medical staff, friends and family of breast cancer patients observe of them that they need to slow down, accept support, allow space to care for themselves and stop worrying about others. Maybe there is gold here that our prevention strategies are missing, the addressing once and for all of the ingrained belief that a woman must care for others before and often to the detriment of herself, or a man must provide for others even if it is to the detriment of himself.

We’re not saying this is the panacea, but this level of self-care has yet to be fully embraced or explored. Why wait for illness to justify caring for ourselves? Imagine if we encouraged gentleness with girls and boys in school, confirmed their qualities first before rewarding them for what they do, emphasized that self-care is not an indulgence of self but one of our greatest responsibilities, and governs the quality of how we then relate to others?

Now this is prevention, as we extend the notion of early detection to the detection of behaviours and attitudes that may result in a body being moved along a path that can lead to illness and disease....or not.


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Science Daily, American Cancer Society (US) Accessed October 2019

Science Daily, Seattle Care Cancer Alliance (US) Accessed October 2019

World Cancer Research Fund: Accessed October 2019

Breast Cancer Now (UK): Accessed October 2019, Sam Baker (US): Accessed October, 20019

Health Direct (Australian Govt) Sources: BreastScreen Australia (About breast cancer), Cancer Council NSW (Reducing your risk of breast cancer), Breast Cancer Network Australia (Risk factors), Cancer Australia (Your risk and breast cancer) Accessed October, 2019

National Health Service (NHS – UK Govt): Accessed October 2019

National Cancer Institute (US Govt): Accessed October 2019

NHS (UK) Accessed October 2019


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