Health: A Question of Health

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WHEN I was having a cervical smear test the nurse called in a doctor to look at my cervix, and he said I had some harmless follicles there. I am now terribly worried that these might become cancerous. What are they?

These are Nabothian follicles (or cysts), which are completely benign. They are small, spherical cysts that form on the cervix when the tiny glands that normally secrete mucus get blocked up. No treatment is necessary. The follicles cause no problems and are so common that they should be considered to be normal.

MY GRANDMOTHER (my mother's mother) died of breast cancer at the age of 73, and a distant cousin has also had breast cancer. My mother (now 75) and my sisters (age 51 and 46) are all well. Does this family history increase my risk of developing breast cancer?

This is the commonest form of cancer affecting women, but inherited breast cancer accounts for only 1 in 20 of all cases. Families that carry one of the recently discovered genes that cause inherited breast cancer usually have several family members with breast cancer or other cancers (ovary, uterus or colon). An important factor is that inherited breast cancer often appears before the age of 50. Because your mother and sisters are all healthy, and there do not seem to be any other related cancers in your family, your risk is likely to be much the same as for any other woman of your age. You can minimise your risk by eating a low-fat diet and not drinking much alcohol. Regular mammograms after the age of 50 will not prevent breast cancer, but will improve your survival chances if you do develop it.

CAN LASER pointers cause damage to the eye?

The beam of concentrated light that is emitted is visible over a long distance. Pointers used by lecturers and teachers operate at very low power. The human eye protects itself by blinking when exposed to bright light and this would limit any potential damage. An inadvertent sweep of the light of such a pointer across a person's eyes could cause temporary flash blindness, similar to the effects of looking at a camera flash. The greatest danger would be from staring directly at a laser pointer. There have been several cases of bus drivers being distracted by these devices, and the risk of accidents is probably greater than the risk of visual damage. There have also been reports of "laser louts" shining pointers at footballers.

Please send your questions to A Question of Health, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; or e- mail to health@independent.co.uk. Dr Kavalier regrets that he is unable to respond personally to questions

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