Ghana: Avoiding Breast Cancer Deaths - Your Boobs or Your Life?

15 October 2019

Ten years ago, when she discovered a little painless sore on her nipple, little did she know that sore, would change the course of her life.

Seeking to treat the sore resulted in a 'back and forth journey' that lasted for about six months as several ointments and antibiotics did not help.

Follow-up checks at a medical facility later revealed her greatest fears; she had close to stage four breast cancer, news that almost shattered her life.

However, strong family support got her to undergo mastectomy treatment at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra to save her life after which she went through Chemotherapy and then Radiotherapy.

"In fact there were days when I gave up but my family encouraged me" and today, the nightmare is over and life is back to normalcy.

This is the story of Mrs Comfort Owusu, Administrative Manager of Association of Rural Banks, a breast cancer survivor who shared her story with "The Spectator" (a sister paper in its October 5th edition).

October is marked as the breast cancer awareness month, a period where awareness creation on the disease is heightened amidst rallying support for early detection and effective treatment for survival.

The disease which develops in the breast tissue with signs including lump in the breast, a change in breast shape, dimpling of the skin, fluid coming from the nipple, inverted nipple and a red or scaly patch of the skin, is said to kill about 458,000 women each year.

Majority of these deaths (269,000) are said to occur in low and middle income countries, where most women with breast cancer are diagnosed in the late stages due mainly to lack of awareness on early detection and barriers to health services.

In Ghana, the National Strategy for Cancer Control programme (2014-2017) indicates that seven out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year will die from the disease compared to two out of 10 women in developed countries like the United States of America.

A latest report released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) states that breast cancer cases have risen from a little over 2,900 in 2012 to more than 4,600 in 2018, with 1,800 women likely to lose their lives to the disease.

Indeed, there is a rising trend of young girls between ages 13 to 20 contracting the disease in Ghana which hitherto was diagnosed among women 43 years and above.

Currently, there is not sufficient knowledge on the causes of breast cancer but risk factors including being feminine, aged (40 years and above), genetic traits, childlessness, long menstrual and lifestyle activities have been identified as exposing women to the disease.

Available data points to the fact that late detection, limited access to timely diagnosis and non-treatment are largely accountable for rise in breast cancer deaths.

"Once patients come early, there are high chances of curing the disease. At stage zero, for instance, you don't feel anything in the breast so if you screen and we pick up anything because it can be evasive, then chances of cure is close to 100 per cent," Head of the Breast Care Unit of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Dr Florence Dedey had indicated in an interview.

"For a stage one, you have a lump but it's small and survival is like 90 per cent for that but if the disease begins to spread from that stage survival is lower that is why we insist on early detection especially for women 40 years and above."

But that is not the utmost worry of the Unit in recent times as Dr Dedey admits that more women were undertaking early screenings for breast cancer, however, the failure to undergo treatment is what is of grave concern.

"We realise that most people are still not making the right decisions with regards the disease. They come for screening and they notice a lump but once you tell them about treatment, they disappear and come back later very ill and at a point of losing their lives.

In as much as we encourage early detection, early treatment is equally important. People are afraid treatment won't cure them or kill them but there are many who have survived the disease," she stressed.

According to the general surgeon, aside issues of finances, the myth that the breasts will be severed (mastectomy) once diagnosed of breast cancer was one major factor that discouraged women from going through treatment.

Even more interesting is the fact that patients dread losing their partners (boyfriends, fiancés, husbands, sugar daddies etc) hence prefer to suppress the disease by resorting to all kinds of unconventional treatments to keep their relationship.

Pointing out treatments available for the disease including radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and surgery depending on the stage of the cancer, Dr Dedey emphasised; "It is not true that once you are diagnosed of breast cancer, your breasts will be cut."

"Mastectomy is only necessary when the cancer is quite big; we usually use a 5cm cut off point and that is why we insist on early detection because when it's small, we can pick the lump and leave the rest of the breast."

Nonetheless, in case of a removal, there is the option of a breast fill or plastic surgery to create a new breast from a patient's tissue or an artificial implant and with the debate that; that won't feel like the natural breast, isn't it worth having an artificial breast than lose your life?

"It is for a very good reason we do Mastectomy, if not, the cancer is likely to spread; for some it breaks unto the skin, others causes big nasty sores, affects the brain, lungs and can lead to death.

"People often say they won't do it and when its gone far they expect you to do something but at that stage, we can treat you and give some medication but we cannot cure you so eventually we may lose you," Dr Dedey cautioned.

For those who prefer to keep the 'sick' breasts for men; the Head of the Breast Unit questioned; "Is it really worth losing your life because of a man who is going to marry as soon as you are gone? I think women should be more proactive and take their own destiny into their hands."

So the question is between your breast and your life, which one is more important?

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