Assess your risk factors and know the symptoms of breast and prostate cancer

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa, more than 100 000 South Africans are diagnosed with cancer every year. One in six men will develop some type of cancer, while one in every eight women will be affected in their lifetime.

It is important to note that cancer is not a death sentence. When it gets caught early and treated effectively, many patients go on to live long, healthy lives. However, not many people are aware of the risks and early symptoms of cancer, causing it to be diagnosed at a more progressed stage and making it difficult to treat effectively.

To help South Africans understand their risk for developing cancer and to help them identify the early stages of the disease, let’s look at the risk factors and symptoms of two cancers affecting men and women.


Prostate cancer is not only common among South African males, but is one of the leading cancers in men worldwide. Prostate cancer is caused by changes in the DNA of a normal prostate cell.

It is important to note that cancer is not a death sentence. When it gets caught early and treated effectively, many patients go on to live long, healthy lives.

What are the risk factors?

Some of the main risk factors for prostate cancer are:

·           Age: Prostate cancer occurs more frequently in older men, and most men diagnosed are over 65 years of age.

·           Family history: There is often a history of a brother or father who had prostate cancer, and studies suggest the existence of a gene that raises one’s susceptibility to the disease.

·           Lifestyle: As with many cancers, diet and certain lifestyle factors have been linked to a higher risk of developing prostate cancer. Factors include a high fat intake, high red meat intake, low consumption of vegetables, obesity, lack of physical activity, and smoking. High alcohol intake (more than two alcoholic drinks per day) also raises a man’s risk for prostate cancer.

Warning signs of prostate cancer include:

·           difficulty or inability to pass urine;

·           a slow stream of urine, often with dribbling at the end;

·           inability to start or stop the flow of urine;

·           frequent need to pass urine, especially at night;

·           swelling in legs;

·           discomfort in pelvic area;

·           lower back pain;

·           blood in the urine or semen;

·           painful ejaculation; and

·           erectile dysfunction.


Although rife, women with breast cancer have an excellent chance of recovery if it is detected early. Every woman should examine her breasts and underarms regularly to check for any changes.

What are the risk factors?

The causes of breast cancer are not yet fully known, although a number of risk factors have been identified. These include:

·           Age: A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases as she gets older, and most advanced breast cancers are found in women over the age of 50.

·           Family history: There is a higher risk of breast cancer if there is a history of a close relative who has had breast, endometrial, ovarian or colon cancer. About 20–30% of women with breast cancer have a family history of the disease, which indicates a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. The most common gene defects are found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women with one of the defects have up to an 80% chance of getting breast cancer at some stage during their life.

·           Menstrual cycle: Women who started menstruating before the age of 12, or who went through menopause late (after the age of 55), have an increased risk of breast cancer.

·           Alcohol use: Drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

·           Childbirth: Women who have never given birth, or who only gave birth after the age of 30, have an increased risk of breast cancer.

·           Obesity: Obesity has been linked to breast cancer. It is believed that obese women produce more oestrogen, which can fuel the development of breast cancer.

·           Lack of exercise: Studies have shown that exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer.

·           Dense breast tissue: Women with denser breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer, as there is more gland tissue and less fatty tissue. Dense tissue can also make it harder for doctors to spot problems on mammograms.

Warning signs of breast cancer

Breast cancer may cause any of the following signs and symptoms:

·           general pain in or on any part of the breast;

·           irritated or itchy breasts;

·           presence of a lump in or near the breast or in the underarm area;

·           thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area;

·           a change in the size or shape of the breast;

·           a dimple or puckering of the breast skin;

·           a nipple turned inward into the breast;

·           fluid other than breast milk coming from the nipple, especially if it is bloody;

·           scaly, red or swollen skin on the breast, nipple or areola (the dark area of skin that is around the nipple);

·           a change in breast colour;

·           changes in the appearance of one or both nipples;

·           dimples in the breast that look like orange peel; and

·           skin changes such as swelling or redness, or other visible differences in one or both breasts.

Cancer is a mysterious disease, and it does sometimes happen that healthy people who exercise, eat healthily and avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke get cancer. It is important to note that having the symptoms explained in this article does not mean a person has cancer, as these symptoms may be attributed to a number of other conditions. It is therefore important to consult a medical professional for an accurate diagnosis.

CANSA – the Cancer Association of South Africa – has regular mobile health clinics that do screening in our communities. For more information, visit: