This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the aisles of every supermarket will be awash with pink merchandise. Thousands of people will buy a pink ribbon and across Australia groups of women will gather for a Girls Night In, generously donating the money they usually spend on a night out to help Cancer Council fight women's cancers, including breast.
The fact breast cancer has such a high profile is a very good thing - it means more money for life-saving research and greater community awareness of what symptoms to look out for and the importance of lifestyle and early detection.
Despite continuous improvements in treatment and survival, breast cancer is a serious health concern in Australia, affecting one in eight women. Worryingly, a growing number of private enterprises are clocking onto the fact that there is money to be made from addressing women's anxiety about breast cancer.
In the last year there has been an influx of commercial breast imaging operations in Australia. Many clinics which once offered spray tans and anti-cellulite treatments, now offer breast scanning services based on technologies whose clinical efficacy is either unknown or poorly evaluated. These services are often aggressively marketed towards women as young as 20 and in some cases are promoted as an alternative to mammographic screening. Cancer Council WA released a report earlier this year outlining some of the services currently on the market.
This trend raises a number of issues.
First of all, Australia has a very effective free national breast cancer screening program. All women aged 50 to 69 are invited for a mammogram (breast X-ray) every two years through BreastScreen, and women aged 40 to 49 and 70 or over may attend if they wish. Biennial mammography is not perfect but it is the best available screening method for breast cancer for women 40 and over. It is also the only method for which there is top level evidence that it saves lives.
The danger of this breast scan while-you-wax approach is that women may forego BreastScreen or being breast aware in favour of what they believe to be legitimate and scientifically based alternative ‘testing' for breast cancer. Our reason for raising these concerns is to avoid a situation whereby a woman relies on unproven methods of breast cancer detection and subsequently develops a tumour which is not detected until it's too late.
So while you may not have the funds nor the inclination to insure your bust for a vast sum of money a la Dolly, being breast aware and having regular mammograms at BreastScreen from the age of 50 (or earlier if you prefer) is the best insurance you can take to protect yourself against breast cancer.
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