The takeaway from breast cancer awareness month
As with most cases of accidents or disease, we read or hear about it affecting someone else and we may think, ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me.’ Or perhaps we don't think about it all. Too often, we don't anticipate ourselves at the receiving end of a devastating diagnosis, even though deep down we realize that the possibility remains.
October was Breast Cancer Awareness month, and now that a month of campaigns and awareness programs has come to an end, we are left with the question: how much do we actually know about breast cancer? Yes, we’ve seen the pink t-shirts and ‘liked’ the Facebook event pages, but how far does our knowledge go beyond that?
Breast cancer affects the lives of 2.1 million women each year, making it the most frequent form of cancer among females. Over the course of her lifetime, one out of eight women runs the risk of developing breast cancer.
Constituting approximately 15 percent of all cancer deaths among women, according to WHO estimates for 2018, it is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women.
While breast cancer is more common among women, men also run the risk of developing it. Other factors that increase the risk of breast cancer include, but are not limited to, increasing age, personal and family history, inherited gene mutations such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, and certain lifestyle choices. One thing to be noted is that even though family history increases one’s risk, the majority of individuals diagnosed do not have any family associations with the disease. Additionally, inheriting gene mutations does not make the diagnosis inevitable, but rather increases one’s risk significantly.
It is unfortunate to note the back-and-forth relationship between social stigma and a lack of awareness. The social stigma associated with female health promotes a lack of awareness, and in turn, that lack of awareness keeps these dated stigmas in place.
In a regional context, it has been found that both factors are leading causes behind unchecked cases and delays in diagnosis. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital shows that of 246 patients, 65.5 percent delayed their diagnosis by more than six months even though 83 percent of them had found lumps or suffered other symptoms of breast cancer prior to diagnosis.
“The most common issue we deal with is shyness. Young girls are reluctant to open up, even to their loved ones. While they agree to self-examination, they don’t want to go to doctors even if they find something wrong,” says Mohsena Reza, Chairman of Inner Wheel District 345, an organization raising awareness and educating young girls about early detection.
The words breast cancer can sometimes sound more like a death sentence than a diagnosis, but that’s not how it is. With proper measures such as regular self-exams and screening through mammography, breast cancer can be detected at earlier, more treatable stages. While neither options are surefire ways of detecting cancer, they are useful tools at our disposal.
Self-examinations simply involve monitoring breasts for anything unusual, such as changes in size, shape or colour, dimpling, puckering, inverted nipples, lumps, etc. There are detailed guides available online on how to conduct these exams, and in any case, they don’t need to be carried out more than once a month. Of course, they are not meant to result in an absolute diagnosis but rather meant to complement screening procedures. Even with lumps, it is found that most are benign and non-cancerous.
The point is not to become engulfed in panic and paranoia, but rather to be vigilant. Consulting a doctor for appropriate early detection measures based on age, history and lifestyle can help to understand where one stands.