By Sabrina Almeida
Findings from a new study indicating that South Asian women are more likely to develop late stage breast cancer than the general population in Canada are frightening, but not surprising. Most often health is not a priority (our own that is) among us, a fact that one hopes will change rather quickly.
I lost a dear friend to breast cancer over two years ago and her case was a perfect illustration of what the study is talking about. She was under 50, and therefore not recommended to do any screenings as there was no family history of the condition. By the time she got to the doctor and was diagnosed, the cancer had progressed to stage two. (In the US however, annual mammograms are recommended after the age of 40.) Until that time she thought the pain she was experiencing was on account of tennis elbow. It was only when an ulcerating tumour appeared that she consulted a physician. Radiation and chemotherapy were unsuccessful, within a year the cancer spread to other parts of her body including the lungs and brain (considered stage 3 and 4) and she was no more.
During one of our conversations prior to her death, I learned that she had never had a mammogram which could have prompted early diagnosis. I was instantly thankful to my family physician for insisting that I have one every two to three years after the age of forty.
Poor health awareness and medical facilities in the home country as well as language and cultural barriers largely prevent South Asian women from getting the medical attention they require. While some are not comfortable with going to doctor alone, others might require some assistance getting there, and many balk at the thought of being examined by a male doctor.
The Pink Tour by the Canadian Breast Cancer Association is attempt to address some of these challenges that South Asian and other immigrant women face and to encourage them to be more proactive where their health is concerned.
Recommended self-examinations are also largely out of the question. Though these breast self-exams have their limitations they proved invaluable for some. Another South Asian friend whose breast cancer is now in remission will attest to that. Vigilance probably saved her life, or extended it to say the least. Feeling an abnormal growth in one of her breasts during a shower she promptly went to the doctor. Test results were positive and treatment ensued. If I had any doubts about these self-examinations they were quickly dispelled. Awareness and education can go a long way in improving health and quality of life.
Most South Asian women are so consumed with their family and/or work that health goes out the window. Misconceptions also abound.
Did you know that breast cancer is the most common cancer among Canadian women? Count yourself as Indian, here’s an eye-opener. Medical research points to an alarming rise of breast cancer cases among Indian women, and at an earlier age. Studies also say that it is the most common cancer in most Indian cities, and the second most common in the rural areas.
More importantly, are you aware that only 5 to 10% are linked to family history? I wasn’t! No doubt those with a family history are at a higher risk but you could still be the first one. Both my friends were.
The greatest benefit of early diagnosis is a better chance of beating it, and that can only come from being aware of any changes, and regular screening. Any mental discomfort pales in comparison to the benefits.
Breast cancer doesn’t have a single cause. Risk increases with age and type of lifestyle. Taking synthetic hormones in the form of birth control pills (which many South Asian women do) and hormone replacement therapy can also have an impact. Early menstruation, delayed childbirth (i.e. having your first baby after the age of 30 or never having one), being overweight after menopause have been consistently found to increase risk.
While there are some among us who prefer not to know, others might be living under the impression that “it will not happen to me”.
How many are aware that even women with seemingly healthy lifestyles have been afflicted with breast cancer?
Screening saves lives. The first step is making an appointment for an annual physical that has probably turned into a 5-year plan. The easiest way to do it is to make a date on your birthday. That way you won’t be struggling to remember when you had it last.