Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Credits: The University of Southampton, WHO
Last August, 57-year-old sports icon Lydia de Vega-Mercado passed away after her battle with breast cancer.
Before her, there were other Filipino women who succumbed to breast cancer. To name a few: movie star Liezel Martinez, actress-host Rio Diaz, film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and broadcast journalist June Keithley.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise consciousness about the impact of breast cancer.
Among Asian countries, the Philippines has the highest incidence rate of breast cancer and has the ninth highest incidence rate in the world today. “Even with the successful fertility reduction and change of lifestyles of Filipino women, the inadequate or lack of knowledge of breath health conditions contributed to its recorded highest prevalence in Asia,” the Philippine Statistics Authority deplored.
Data from the Global Cancer Observatory in 2020 showed breast cancer as the third leading cause of cancer deaths among Filipinos. At that time, about 27,200 new cases were recorded.
An ounce of prevention so goes a familiar saying, is better than a pound of cure. This is true in the case of breast cancer.
“What was once thought of as a disease of developed countries, breast cancer is now a major health problem in the Philippines,” commented the late health secretary, Dr. Juan M. Flavier.
But no one should die of breast cancer as it is preventable. The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) says the vast majority of women with breast cancer in poor countries are diagnosed only after cancer has reached a late, untreatable stage.
“Many Third World women are unaware that they are at risk of breast cancer and do not know how to examine themselves for signs of the disease,” the United Nations health agency says.
Health experts agree that it is women themselves who can do something to detect the disease and prevent it from reaching an incurable stage. “Women can do breast self-examination (BSE) a week after menstruation,” the Philippine Cancer Control Program of the health department states.
The BSE can be done while under the shower, before going to bed at night, or upon waking up in the morning. A powder or soap over the breast may be used to make the examination easier. If married, a husband can help her in the breast examination. Any mass felt should lead to a physician.
In early stages, breast cancer usually has no symptoms. As a tumor progresses, a woman may experience pain or tenderness in her breast. She may also observe swelling in the armpit. But the most apparent symptom is a lump in the breast.
Aside from lump, other indicators include a noticeable or indentation on the breast; a change in the contour, texture, or temperature of the breast; a change in the nipple, such as an indrawn or dimpled look, itching or burning sensation; and unusual discharge from the nipple that may be clear, bloody, or another color.
The earlier a cancerous lump is detected and removed, the bigger the chances of treating it, says Dr. Antonio Villalon, an oncologist at the Manila Doctors Hospital. He advised that between 20 and 39 years old, every woman should have a clinical breast exam every three years, and after age 40, every woman should have a clinical breast exam done each year.
Mammograms — a type of X-ray — are the chief way now to check for breast cancer. But there are others. A Mayo Clinic report stated: “A radioactive tracer that ‘lights up’ cancer hiding inside dense breasts showed promise in its first big test against mammograms, revealing more tumors and giving fewer false alarms. The experimental method — molecular breast imaging (MBI) — would not replace mammograms for women at average risk of the disease.”
But it might become an additional tool for higher-risk women with a lot of dense tissue that makes tumors hard to spot on mammograms, and it could be done at less cost than magnetic resonance imaging, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Right now, medical science is still baffled by what causes breast cancer. “Many different things can affect your chances of getting breast cancer,” states Breast Cancer Now (BCN), a London-based charity foundation. “There’s no single cause. It results from a combination of the way we live our lives, our genes and our environment. We can’t predict who will get breast cancer.”
Although breast cancer also strikes men, it’s the women who are greatly affected by the dreaded disease. Current studies show that women, to some extent, shape their own odds. “It’s incredibly important that people know they are not powerless,” said Susannah Brown, senior scientist at the World Cancer Research Fund. “There are steps they can take to help reduce their risk.”
Among the prevention measures against breast cancer, according to health experts, are as follows: (1) Avoid or limit your alcohol intake; (2) Don’t smoke; (3) Maintain a healthy weight; (4) Eat well; and (5) Be physically active.
Try to find out your family history. “A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has a mother, sister, or daughter (first-degree relative) or multiple family members on either her mother’s or father’s side of the family who have had breast or ovarian cancer,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states. “Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises a woman’s risk.”
As much as possible, avoid hormone replacement therapy. “Menopausal hormone therapy increases risk for breast cancer,” says Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of Hutchinson Center’s Prevention Center. “If you must take hormones to manage menopausal symptoms, avoid those that contain progesterone and limit their use to less than three years.”
Finally, if you are a mother and have a child, breastfeed him or her. “Breastfeeding might play a role in breast cancer prevention,” the Mayo Clinic says. “The longer you breastfeed, the greater the protective effect.” SCC says that breastfeeding for a total of one year or more (combined for all children) lowers the risk of breast cancer. “Mother’s milk has great health benefits for the child,” it adds.