Spreading Awareness of Breast Cancer

9 min | Medical Careers
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Cam Mutton

October 8, 2019

Alarming Number of Women Affected by Breast Cancer Daily

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. According to the ABCR (Australian Breast Cancer Research), 48 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each day.

Dr Nipu Jayatilleke 2

Dr Nipu (Irandi) Jayatilleke, Breast Surgeon

We are honoured to work with some of the country’s finest Oncologists and Surgeons. Dr Nipu (Irandi) Jayatilleke kindly took the time to speak with us about why she chose to work as a Breast Surgeon and the research and advocacy she takes part in to help improve the number of women affected by this terrible disease.

How did you get started working as a Breast Surgeon and what drew you to the specialty?

As a general surgical trainee, I was exposed to lots of different subspecialties, but one of my most rewarding terms was working in breast surgery. I was drawn to the warmth and empathy needed to work in oncological surgery, and the technical aspects were a secondary drawcard.

Predominantly, my patients are women. They come to me very distressed having just received their diagnosis, and I feel privileged to be able to help them through their whole treatment. I am very passionate about women’s rights and health and find it incredibly rewarding to be at the forefront of supporting my patients’ health.

After receiving my FRACS, I went on to do two years post-graduate sub-specialty training in Endocrine and Oncoplastic Breast Surgery. Then in the past five years have completed a Masters, as well as having two children and carrying on the research I started as part of my Master's Degree. 

What does a typical day look like for you working in Breast Surgery?

There isn’t really a typical day, each one is very varied, however, there are a number of different aspects to my life and work:

  • Clinically seeing patients in my rooms

  • The operating theatre

  • My research

  • Teaching

  • Advocacy – I work closely with the college to advocate for women and diversity in the leadership of our industry

I have just finished some research which started as part of my masters. The research has been helping to identify when follow-up surgery is likely to be needed. When a patient has breast cancer, part of the surgery is to establish whether or not cancer cells have made it into the lymph nodes under the arm; this helps guide other treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

My research involved creating a clinical calculator to help doctors navigate the extent of surgery needed for cancer-affected lymph nodes. It is still in the testing stage at the moment, but will hopefully be available online for everyone to access after the final data analysis is complete and we publish it.

Is there a particular experience that has struck a chord with you?

All the time! This will sound corny, but it really is true – it is a rare week when I don’t have a patient impress me with their story. I often first meet my patients when they are at their most vulnerable, having just received a distressing diagnosis, feeling lost; being able to help them navigate this, care for them through surgery, and then be able to see them recover and get back into their usual lives with their loved ones is extremely satisfying.

Watching and supporting my patients and their loved ones grapple with the challenge of cancer and seeing their stamina, stoicism, and determination (even when the going is really tough) is a privilege that I don’t take for granted. It certainly helps me to keep my life in perspective and teaches me daily about the tenacity of the human spirit.

What type of qualities does it take for a doctor to work in Breast Surgery? Do you have any advice for doctors considering work in the specialty?

I think one of the most useful qualities is being an intuitive listener, which is one of the keys to being a good doctor in any specialty. Patients will not always articulate the things that they are the most worried about; being able to pick up on that, and let them know that you see that and that you will help them with it, is very comforting for people. Sometimes it’s not in words; it can be a look, a pause, a quietness in someone or their loved one; a good doctor will see these clues, address their fears, and provide support. Be prepared to deal with some really challenging emotional circumstances; young patients especially leave a close mark on my heart.

Having a good sense of humour and a rapport with your patients and your team helps as well – at the right moments, it’s nice to share a smile or two together, through the whole process.

On a practical level for trainees, you will need to apply for and be selected for General Surgery Training with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, and once you qualify as a surgeon, undertake further sub-specialty training in Breast Surgery. As a medical student or a junior doctor, express your interest in surgery to your seniors and spend time with them in clinic and theatre, get to know them and see what they do.

Being a surgeon is a pretty special career, and despite the years of training and the long hours, it’s worth it; and as you may be able to tell, I love it.

Can you offer any advice on how everyone can get involved to raise awareness for Breast Cancer and to catch it as early as possible?

On a personal basis, check your breasts!

The main purpose of regular breast examination is really to get you familiar with your breasts. Because every breast is different with its own lumps, bumps and shapes, it is important to become familiar with what your normal is, so that you will notice if something feels abnormal to you.

If you’re not sure how to there are lots of great online resources (see below) and you can ask your doctor how to check as well.

Talk to your friends and family and encourage them to get educated about their breast health. If you or your friends and family have reached the age when regular screening is recommended (50 – 74 yrs of age*), start the process with your local screening service, Breast Screen Australia can help.

Overall, I think Breast Cancer awareness in Australia is pretty good, with events like Pink Ribbon Day. Other ways of supporting cancer research and care is via Cancer Australia, Daffodil Day, and if you want to support more women’s cancer research, Ovarian cancer is also something that needs more attention and support.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us Dr Jayatilleke.

You can find out more about Dr. Jayatilleke on her website.

“Early detection has been clearly demonstrated to increase the chances of better and more positive outcomes from breast cancer. Performing regular self-examinations and being aware of what to look for and what is normal for you and your breasts at different times of the month is vitally important.” 

With approximately 17,520 women diagnosed with Breast Cancer annually in Australia, dedicated Doctors like Dr. Jayatilleke are making all the difference in patients’ lives.

Would you like to contribute to improving the Breast Cancer statistic? Search our current listing of rewarding Surgery jobs and Oncology jobs, or speak with our Medicine team to find out about exclusive roles that may not be listed on our website.

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