Australian Broadcasting Corporation
TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT
Breast cancer rates on the way up
Reporter: Mark Bannerman
KERRY O’BRIEN: It’s a sobering fact that this year more than 13,000 Australian women and 100 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s 36 each day and the numbers are growing alarmingly. It’s now the case that by the time a woman reaches the age of 85, she has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer. The silver lining, if you can call it that, is that survival rates are also on the rise and the experts say early detection is the key. Nonetheless the need to understand the causes for such a rapid increase in the incidents of breast cancer is urgent, as Mark Bannerman reports.
MARK BANNERMAN: Megan James is a happy, healthy mother of two and as you can see, her children are her life’s joy. But this young woman very nearly missed motherhood all together. The reason breast cancer.
MARK BANNERMAN: So in a couple of words, that diagnosis, how would you describe it?
MEGAN JAMES: Just terrifying. It was just out of left field and terrifying.
MARK BANNERMAN: When cancer hit, Megan James was 31, in the prime of her life and just married, but none of those things mattered when she got that diagnosis.
MEGAN JAMES: That was done over the phone so I just remember hanging up and sitting in this room it was completely surreal and then, after that, the next worst thing, and probably the worst thing of the lot was when I found out I had to have chemotherapy, I didn’t like that.
MARK BANNERMAN: What was your reaction?
MEGAN JAMES: I cried.
MARK BANNERMAN: Anna Little was told she had breast cancer nearly a year ago. Unlike Megan James, she already had a family but the diagnosis was no less daunting.
ANNA LITTLE: The surgery was probably the toughest. To change your body like that so radically and I’ve always been quite proud of my breasts. I didn’t want to lose one, that’s for sure.
MARK BANNERMAN: Despite her concerns, Anna Little is remarkably composed about her condition. The reason is simple enough she knows that for women of her age group, breast cancer must now be seen as a kind of modern epidemic.
ANNA LITTLE: I thought, well, it’s my turn now, here it comes.
MARK BANNERMAN: Last week, the Prime Minister’s wife, Janette Howard, made a rare public speech to raise awareness about breast cancer. At the same time, the National Breast Cancer Centre launched a major report about this silent killer.
JANETTE HOWARD: This big report that’s being released is a very daunting and I think in some ways very frightening document.
MARK BANNERMAN: It’s now the case that although survival rates for breast cancer have surged, by the time a woman makes it to 80, she has very close to a one in eight chance of contracting this disease. Is it fair to call it an epidemic?
DR HELEN ZORBAS, NATIONAL BREAST CANCER CENTRE: Well, I’m not quite sure what constitutes epidemic, but having a doubling of increase in incidence between 1983 and today and looking forward to 2011 and saying that that’s going to be a trebling of incidents is concerning.
MARK BANNERMAN: Deeply concerned researchers have begun mapping the disease. What they found is that breast cancer is more prevalent if you live in a major city, numbers are higher in affluent suburbs too, with the highest rate per head of population in our national capital, Canberra. To say these figures are concerning would be an understatement and they raise many, many questions, but amongst the women we spoke to across Australia who’ve survived breast cancer, the questions are very simple why is this happening, and why has it happened to me? In Anna Little’s case, she had experienced a major trauma just before her diagnosis. Her son Jeremy died while reporting the war in Iraq. It was food for thought.
ANNA LITTLE: I’m a very easygoing person and when something like that hits you so hard and so quickly, I think, yes, certainly it must shake up everything inside you and I think we all have cancer cells within us, it’s just a matter of triggering what is it that triggers them.
DR RICK KEFFORD, WESTMEAD INSTITUTE FOR CANCER RESEARCH: I like to think of it a bit like, you know, when you think of what are the things that make you have a car accident. There’s usually multiple things involved. So there might have been a blockage in the brake line as well as your tyres are a bit smooth as well as there’s some mad guy driving on the wrong side of the road as well as it’s raining and your wipers aren’t working and all those things together and some bad luck make you have a car accident.
MARK BANNERMAN: If this sounds like a major copout, think again. Dr Rick Kefford sees breast cancer patients every day of his life and he has also seen a series of factors blamed for the increase in the disease. First, it was hair colour. Then, underarm deodorant. More recently, mobile phones.
RICK KEFFORD: Look, there are so many myths about breast cancer that I’ve been strongly tempted to write a book about them and, you know, underarm deodorant, you know, wearing a bra. I mean, you can go on and on, there are just huge volumes of these things and the Internet’s full of all this garbage.
MARK BANNERMAN: This may be garbage, but researchers do have their theories. Excessive weight gain after menopause is one of them. Long term hormone replacement therapy is another, but the other issue is far more fundamental women are maturing earlier, having babies later and breastfeeding less and that could create some of the triggers for breast cancer. This could even explain in part why women who live in more affluent areas, having children later, might be more at risk.
HELEN ZORBAS: At a population level, it does add to the numbers of women who are being diagnosed each year with breast cancer. But I do want to stress that for an individual woman there’s no way we can say that if you have children and you have them young and you breastfeed them you’re going to be protected from breast cancer.
RICK KEFFORD: If you think of the Olympic Stadium, which is about 100,000 people, and you imagine that they’re all women, then it will just be the corporate boxes that get breast cancer each year, that’s the proportion. It’s about 300 women out of 100,000 each year. Now the additional risk of having had your first pregnancy late in life, like perhaps after the age of 35, is probably only one row of one of those corporate boxes. So let’s keep it in perspective.
MARK BANNERMAN: So where does this leave the debate and the public health message? Well, for most experts the advice runs like this ad.
ADVERTISEMENT: If you find a change in your breasts, see your doctor.
HELEN ZORBAS: On the evidence that we have, the only thing I can advocate is early detection. I can’t advocate one thing that anyone should do that would definitely guarantee them a reduction in their risk for breast cancer.
MARK BANNERMAN: And that too significantly is the message from those women who have been through breast cancer and survived.
MEGAN JAMES: That’s what I say from my heart too because I live it. I found a lump, I checked it, it was terrifying but I’ve come out the other end and look at my life now. I don’t live with the threat of cancer. In my heart I believe early detection is the best thing, because it worked for