October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is marked in countries across the world, and helps to increase attention and support for awareness, early diagnosis, and treatment as well as palliative care for those facing this disease.
Breast cancer is a growth of abnormal cells in the breast. Over time, and when undetected, these cells can invade healthy breast tissue nearby as well as the lymph system in the armpit.
When the invasive cancer goes undetected and untreated for an extended period, it can also spread (metastasize) to other organs such as the lungs, bone and liver.
The global picture
There are about 1.7 million new cases and 522,000 deaths from breast cancer each year (Globocan 2012 report). Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, and is the most common cause of cancer among women in most countries.
In low- and middle-income countries, the incidence has been rising steadily due to increased life expectancy, changing reproductive patterns (such as later age at first childbirth and less breast-feeding), and the adoption of western lifestyles.
The majority of women who die from breast cancer (324,000) live in low- and middle-income countries, where most women are diagnosed in late stages due to a variety of factors.
These include; limited awareness on the part of the public and health care providers, and the lack of access to timely, affordable and effective diagnosis and treatment.
The situation in Ghana
Breast cancer is the most common cancer that affects women and the most common cause of cancer deaths in Ghana. According to the Ghana Health Service (GHS), previous studies find Ghanaian women are diagnosed at a younger age and at more advanced stages (III and IV), and have tumors with characteristics similar to African American women.
The number of women getting breast cancer in Ghana has increased over the years and is expected to rise with changing lifestyles and increased reporting of cases.
In Ghana, there were over 2,000 cases of breast cancer in 2012, only one to two of breast cancers are found in men and most of the patients are between 40 and 49 years.
The key to successful treatment of breast cancer lies in its early detection, unfortunately, 60 to 70 per cent of Ghanaian women reported to hospital in the late stages when the cancer cells may have already spread to other parts of the body. This is what eventually leads to death.
Breast cancer can be cured and controlled, but is only possible when the cancer is detected early through screening.
It is important to understand that breast cancer does not start with pain, although a persistent pain at the same location is to be investigated.
The goal of breast cancer screening tests is to find it before symptoms show up, for instance a lump that can be felt. Women must therefore conduct monthly breast self-examinations, where the woman checks the breast herself.
Doing this on a regular basis makes one familiar with one’s breast and any changes can be identified early. A breast self-examination is best done after your menstruation or period using the flat (palmer) surface of the fingers (without the thumb).
How to do a self-examination test
One stands in front of a mirror and watches the breasts; first with hands by the side, next by lifting up the hand above the head, and finally by placing the hands on the hips.
During these movements, the breast is observed for any changes. Afterwards, one can lie down flat on the back with one hand under the head while the remaining hand is used to examine the breast.
Use the fingers to press gently against the breast and chest in a circular motion.
Go around the entire breast and into the armpit while doing this. Finally, squeeze on the nipple to check for any discharge the hands are then changed over to examine the other side.
Some people prefer to do this examination, while taking a shower as it may be easier to feel lump when the skin is wet. In this case, the hand is raised up and put behind the neck, in lieu of under the head while lying down.
Breast cancer treatment
Breast cancer is usually treated with a combination of methods such as surgery, chemotherapy (cancer medications), radiotherapy (x-ray treatment) and hormonal tablets. The decision as to what to use will be based on the patient – type of breast cancer and the stage of the cancer.
The earlier diagnosis is made, the better the chances of a cure. Early detection and effective treatment is the only cure for breast cancer.
We therefore encourage women especially, to be vigilant and get screened by a health professional, take charge of their health by getting their breast screened regularly.
If you have a close relative who has had breast cancer, you may need a personalized screening plan by a specialist. Remember, early detection and effective treatment of breast cancer save lives.