October is observed as the Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as part of an annual campaign to raise awareness about the impact of breast cancer. It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women with an estimated 2.3 million new cases so far this year alone. In South Asia, Pakistan has the highest rate for breast cancer, with 1 in 9 women at risk. Hence, it has become very important to educate ourselves, and others around us, about breast cancer.
This year’s BCAM theme focuses on buddying up with one another because no one should fight cancer alone. Here are some frequently asked questions and facts about breast cancer, so that we all know what we are up against.
What is breast cancer? It is a type of cancer that starts in the breast. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. And although the exact cause of breast cancer is not known, 5-10% of breast cancer is attributed to gene mutations.
40% of breast cancer is detected by women who perform regular self-examination. In fact all women above the age of 20 should perform self-examination once a month as it allows a person to become more familiar with their body
What are the risk factors?
Even though 50% of breast cancer cases are reported in women above the age of 40 with no history of cancer, there are several risk factors that contribute widely including a family history of breast cancer, exposure to radiation, dense breasts, smoking, alcohol intake, hormone therapy, increasing age, obesity and sedentary lifestyle. Reproductive health and child bearing history also add upto the risk factors.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer? Although many times cancer may be present without any physical symptoms some common ones include swellings, painless hard lump or mass, swollen lymph nodes, abnormal fluid discharge, change of skin color,thickening in any area of chest and sudden pain. Change of shape and nipple retraction may be seen in advanced stages.
How can breast cancer be detected in time?
Most studies show that the key to cure cancer is its early detection, and especially in case of breast cancer it has been known as the best way forward. Self-examination plays a vital role in the detection of breast cancer. In addition, screening tests can be used be used for detection including mammograms, breast MRI and ultrasound.
What is a mammogram? The most important screening test for breast cancer is the mammogram. A mammogram is like an X-ray of the breast. It can detect breast cancer up to two years before the tumour can be felt by you or your doctor. Annual mammograms are recommended for women especially in the age bracket of 40-49 years and women 50 to 74 should get a mammogram every two years.
Why is self examination important? According to a research by John Hopkins University 40% of breast cancer is detected by women who perform regular self-examination. In fact all women above the age of 20 should perform self-examination once a month as self-exams allow a person to become more familiar with their body and hence any changes can be detected easily. Especially in countries like Pakistan, where majority of women cannot afford expensive screening tests, this technique is effective in early detection.
: 83,000 cases of breast cancer are reported in Pakistan. The causes include social barriers and stigma as well as the lack of awareness among women
How to perform self examination?
You can easily find a YouTube video or a step-by-step guide on how to self examine. Here is a simple
Why is regular screening important? Breast cancer is sometimes found after symptoms appear, but many women with breast cancer have no symptoms. This is why regular breast cancer screening is so important.
It is estimated that each year more than 83,000 cases of breast cancer are reported in Pakistan. The causes include social barriers and stigma as well as the lack of awareness among women. Most are unable to opt for expensive screening tests and are not educated on performing self-exam, resulting in approximately 40,000 deaths each year.
Efforts are being made by NGO such as Pink Ribbon which are breaking barriers and taking up conversations on the issue especially by their recent campaigns to educate younger women about breast cancer who can then educate older women in their homes. Similarly the President of Pakistan Arif Alvi has taken up the cause to spread awareness on the issue, but it has not proved to be enough, because many women especially in villages and small towns have no access to such campaigns or information. It is therefore important to bring them under the umbrella for the future, for example in nationwide programmes with door to door drives as well as campaigns using television, radio and especially social media. A wonderful example of such awareness drive is that of the Pink Bot in India. The Pink Bot, a chat module integrated into WhatsApp takes only a simple hi to answer all queries on breast cancer. Similarly many hospitals in the UAE have launched free screening tests under its awareness drive Pink It Now. Pakistan should also take a step forward and take up initiative like these in order to spread awareness and combat such a high incident ailment in the country.
It is time that we break the taboo around female health issues like breast cancer and take a step forward to educate ourselves and our loved ones. The more we know about it the better are our chances of detecting it and being equipped with the best possible resources of fighting breast cancer.