At lunch the other day I met a post-doc who seemed a bit low: she had just found out that her mom in India was diagnosed with breast cancer. Apparently her mom realised that something was wrong for a few months, but waited to go see a doctor about it because she wanted to complete the teerth-yatras (pilgrimages) she planned to go on and didn't want anything to interfere with those plans.
The irony of it all was harder on this post-doc, being a cancer researcher herself and in an environment where there is so much publicity, awareness, campaigning and discussion about breast cancer. It makes one even more sad to think about the absolute lack of these things back home, and the slightly more fatalistic approach I've seen in India about health and disease, even amongst the better-read and more well-to-do sections of the society. The value of early detection in breast cancer cannot be overstated. Chances of recovery and survival are highest when it is caught in the early stages.
Women living in North America have the highest incidence of breast cancer in the world, but since 1990 there has been a steady decline in the number of deaths from breast cancer in the US. This is mainly because of early detection and of course, better treatment. In India, we should see this as a warning of things to come. Breast cancer is already becoming increasingly prevalent in India. It is now the second most common cancer to affect women in India, more common in urban areas among higher socio-economic classes. This is possibly an effect of lifestyle changes that increase one's risk (alcohol, diet, stressful and sedentary lives, late childbirth, early onset of the menstrual cycle, etc.). This same high-risk group has access to more information and resources that are sadly, not being tapped. More than 50% of breast cancers detected in India are at the locally advanced stage (tumors greater than 5 cm), while in the US, more breast cancers are detected in the early stages and consequently easier to control and treat.
Every woman over 40 irrespective of identified risks should learn to perform a self-breast exam correctly and monitor herself regularly (once a month) for any tell tale signs. Regular self-exam (done correctly) helps a woman to become more familiar with her breasts and detect small changes. This should be supplemented by yearly or bi-yearly mammograms and any other tests that the doctor might recommend. 80% of lumps detected in the breast are non-cancerous. But early detection of a cancerous lump means a very high chance of survival and mammograms can detect a cancer much earlier than the symptoms begin to show.
I don't usually say this to my blog readers, but I want you all to show this post to your mom. Exhort her to get pro-active about this and schedule an appointment for her with the doctor to better educate her on breast cancer if she is not already aware. Simple steps towards breast cancer detection and prevention are very do-able and go a long way.
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Edited in: The risk of breast cancer does increase with age, but as pointed out in the comments below, all women must be vigilant about it.