Breast cancer

Cancer is a disease of the body cells. In a healthy body the cells can replace or repair themselves when they become worn out or damaged but in a body with cancer, the cells just keep on multiplying and growing. They begin to form clusters, which are known as tumours. These can be benign or malignant. Benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body and so are not labeled as cancer; malignant tumours do spread.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women and about 1,700 women are diagnosed with it in Ireland every year. It is more common in women over 30. Men can get breast cancer but it is one hundred times less likely than in women. It is not known what exactly causes breast cancer but some women seem more at risk than others. These include women who have had several close family members with breast cancer or with certain other cancers, especially cancer of the ovary and colon.

Breast cancer is very treatable when it is found early. It can be detected in mammograms (breast screening) but most women discover something's up first.

Symptoms of breast cancer include a:

  • constant pain in one part of the breast
  • change in size or shape of breast from what it normally looks like
  • changes in, on or around the nipple · changes in the skin of the breast such as dimpling, redness, puckering or an 'orange peel' appearance from enlarged pores
  • lump or swelling or · constant pain in armpit

Pain in both breasts is usually not a sign of breast cancer and it is important that you remember that 90% of lumps that are found are benign and so are not breast cancer.

If you are examining your breasts remember that just before your period your breasts can often feel tender and sore and their texture and look can change a bit. It is best to do a self-examination before or after this pre-period time. When carrying one out you should keep your fingers together and flat and move them over the entire surface, including the nipple and armpit.

If you notice something you do not need to panic but you should go to a doctor to rule out the small possibility of cancer.

Cervical cancer

Abnormalities in or around the cervix can be discovered with a cervical smear test. All women who are sexually active for 3 years or are over the age of 21 (whichever one arrives first) should have a test every 3 years. A smear test is an internal examination and swabs are taken from the cervix. It is not painful but can be a bit uncomfortable. Having a smear test regularly will allow doctors to check up on any abnormalities that may run the risk of developing into cancer at a later stage.

Most smear tests showing abnormalities are not cases of cervical cancer. You can get a test done at any GP, your Student Health Centre or a Well Woman Clinic.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS affects up to ten per cent of women, although many don't realise they have it. It can cause problems ranging from weight gain to excess body hair to infertility.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Pain from cysts on the ovaries
  • Infertility
  • High blood pressure
  • Acne
  • Central obesity (putting on weight around your middle)
  • Male-pattern baldness
  • Hirsutism (excessive body hair)

The cause of PCOS is not yet known, although there does seem to be a hereditary factor as PCOS often runs in families (interestingly, men in affected families often go bald during early adulthood, although the reason why is not yet known).

Currently, women with PCOS are usually given treatments relevant to their particular symptoms. These include:

  • Menstrual disturbance - oral contraceptives regulate periods and reduce levels of free androgens (male hormones) in the blood, so reducing hirsutism, but can make insulin problems worse
  • Fertility problems - clomiphene (stimulates development of eggs or follicles in the ovaries); gonadotrophin drugs (stimulate follicle production); ovarian diathermy or laser treatment; assisted conception techniques
  • Hirsutism and acne - anti-androgen drugs; cyproterone acetate and ethinyloestradiol; spironolactone, and androgen-blocking drugs, such as finasteride; cosmetic treatments such as electrolysis and laser hair removal
  • Metabolic problems and risk of coronary heart disease - metformin, used to treat diabetes, can make cells more sensitive to insulin and improve uptake of sugar, reducing insulin production; also reduces male hormone production and may return periods to normal, as well as helping with weight loss
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)

This is a collection of symptoms that occur in the second half of the menstrual cycle. They usually disappear soon after a period has started. It is not fully known why women can experience different degrees of PMS. For some women it is very severe and can occupy up to two out of every four weeks and at its worst it can be very difficult to function as they would normally. There are both physical and psychological symptoms.

  • Physical include: abdominal bloating, pelvic pain, breast soreness/tenderness, fluid retention, headaches, backaches, acne, nausea, clumsiness, irritable bowel.
  • Psychological symptoms can be: irritability, aggression, craving for sweet foods, anxiety, exhaustion, feeling sad.

If you suffer severely from PMS (to the point that it is causing you to alter your normal lifestyle) you should see a doctor. For women with mostly physical symptoms, doctors will sometimes prescribe the combined contraceptive pill.

General tips for reducing the effects of PMS
  • Exercise regularly but particularly when you have PMS. This may be the last thing you want to do but even just going for a walk can relieve all sorts of symptoms.
  • Avoid products with caffeine, including tea
  • Reduce intake of salt and eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Experts suggest that painkillers with ibuprofen is a useful combatant of some of the pain fuelled symptoms of PMS
  • Evening primrose oil or starflower oil, which can be bought in any good pharmacy, can help ease some symptoms such as breast soreness
  • Try to limit the stresses in your life