BREAST CANCER: The nightmare facing many women

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October is the International Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness and screening of the disease. We urge you to take the first step towards fighting breast cancer – get examined by a trained medical professional. Over the years, several strides have been made in combating breast cancer in Kenya but we still have a long way to go. ESTHER KIRAGU addresses some of the pertinent issues on the disease.

“You’ve tested positive for breast cancer…” These are among the scariest words a woman dreads to hear from a doctor after breast cancer screening. Fear of alienation, surgery, impact of chemotherapy, dealing with the stigma, loss of one or both breasts, and death are some of the emotions that immediately come to mind upon diagnosis. But managing these fears is crucial so as to make the best decisions concerning your health. It is important to know that regardless of the diagnosis, breast cancer is not a life sentence and if diagonosed early you can defeat it or even manage to live with it.

It is easy to assume that many people know about breast cancer because of the information available on the subject, but its awareness can never be over emphasised. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than a million women are diagnosed with breast cancer yearly yet an alarming number of women do not bother to check their breasts, citing a general lack of awareness to perform self-breast examination. Not having your breasts checked for cancer is suicidal, especially considering that early detection saves lives.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are two components of early detection that have been shown to improve cancer mortality tremendously – education and screening. Through education people are able to recognize early signs of cancer and seek medical attention in good time. Screening on the other hand helps to identify early cancer or pre-cancer before signs are recognisable.

A local and global concern…

Globally, cancer causes more deaths than HIV, TB and malaria combined. Failure to have routine check ups and lack  of financial resources are some of the major reasons why breast cancer is still commonly diagnosed at late stages, thus reducing the chances of winning the fight against it. All the same, there has been an increase in the number of global health initiatives aimed at addressing breast cancer in different parts of the world.

Closer home, for a long time the focus has been on fighting HIV/Aids and malaria in Kenya. There however remains an urgent need to address breast cancer so as not to allow it to remain shrouded in mystery and fear. Statistics show that over 60 Kenyans die of cancer and its related complications every day. Cancer is Kenya’s third leading cause of death, killing more people each day than HIV and malaria combined. Therefore, it should be treated with the seriousness it deserves.

There are many people today who still believe that breast cancer has no cure but the truth is that many people do recover from breast cancer if detected early. Unfortunately about 80 per cent of cancers in Kenya are detected at a late stage, thus reducing the chances of survival. A research conducted by Ipsos Synovate in 13 urban towns in Kenya and published in the September 2011 issue of the medical journal Lancet shows that six out of seven women in Kenya have not been screened for breast cancer despite aggressive and sustained awareness campaigns by the government, hospitals and NGOs. These findings suggest a failure in the current awareness and prevention strategies being employed to tackle the disease. Maybe we need to relook at our strategies so as to make more strides in the war against cancer.

However, we must also recognise the efforts made so far. July 2011 marked a new beginning for cancer patients and those at risk in Kenya with the launch of The Africa Cancer Foundation, the first of its kind in Africa. The foundation advocates for early diagnosis and treatment of cancer, as well as quality cancer care.

Probably a question that is still on many people’s mind is whether breast cancer is a disease for the old? Statistics show that 60 per cent of Kenyans affected by cancer are less than 70 years old. Recent reports indicate a rising trend of breast cancer among young women, thus despite one’s age, screening is a must. For women aged 20 to 40 years, monthly breast self-examination and examination by a trained medical professional yearly remain crucial whereas for women above 40 years, monthly breast self-examination, examination by a trained medical professional as well the need to have a mammogramme every year can’t be overemphasised.

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