Every week in Barbados, as much as three women are being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“That is an increase,” says Dr Shirley Jhagroo, the Medical Co-ordinator of the Breast Screening Programme of the Barbados Cancer Society.
“At the Breast Screening Clinic over the last two years, we have found an average of one new case per week and then in the last six months from January to June we have found between two and three.”
The tireless advocate for the prevention of breast cancer is not overly worried about the rise in cases only because she believes more women are coming forward for testing, and early detection saves lives.
“In 2000 before the programme started breast cancer was a stigma. Nobody would come to the television or talk to the Press to say that they have breast cancer. But now you just ask a question and they are ready to declare ‘I am a survivor’.”
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she is urging women to take charge of their health by performing self examinations and then following up with professional checks checks, if necessary.
“Beware that breast cancer is there. Breast cancer can affect anyone. It does not exclude race, colour, creed, or religion. We still don’t know the cause of that disease and in Barbados it has been affecting just about anybody.”
According to Jhagroo, breast cancer in Barbados is the number one cancer among women and it is also the most common cause of death among women.
In the United States, breast cancer is the number two cause of death and in Britain it is number three.
“Breast cancer between the ages of 50 and 65 has always been the highest. Now we are finding women over 65 with breast cancer. So when we used to say stop screening I don’t say it anymore, I say just come.
“Now younger women, that’s where you do see higher incidents from our observation between the ages of 35 and premenopausal –– around 48 –– there is an increase in the number of women there. The good news, however, is that a lot of women are coming forward and a lot of them are being diagnosed early, but you still have that percentage who stay away because of fear of the unknown.”
She is alarmed that during the launch of this year’s Pink Ribbon Drive, several women in their 60’s openly confessed that they have never perform self exams or had mammograms.
“They go to the polyclinic for their diabetes and hypertension but they don’t do pap smears or breast checks. I asked them ‘when are you going to go?’.”
Jhagroo cautions that women can ill-afford to allow fear to prevent them from saving their lives, even as she stresses that not every lump is cancerous.
“Being a woman I think I can cope with anxiety if I find something and then find out it is not, rather than one day find this huge thing and I have stage four [cancer].
“So if you do your breast self examination once a month –– check it after the period –– and you find something in the breast that was not there before, then you must insist that you know what it is. I say to women the responsibility is yours. If you see a lump, if you see puckering like if you’re stitching something and you pull it too tight, you see blue veins all going into one area and that was not there before, then nobody should say to you that it is nothing. You insist.”
The cause of breast cancer is still a mystery to experts but Jhagroo says there are risk factors every woman needs to be aware of.
“What we do know for sure is that between five and eight per cent of breast cancer cases, there is a family history and then there are certain risk factors –– getting older, obesity, smoking, women who have their first child over the age of 30, those who started their menstruation early before the age of ten. These are all risk factors that they have found from the research, so in other words, you can see a trend here with hormones –– the longer your menstruation goes on the higher your risk of breast cancer because if you start menstruating early and finish late there is that increase in risk.”
She adds there is no real way to prevent the disease but referred to research which urged women to maintain a healthy weight, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and perform breast self exams from as early as the teen years.
Over the last 12 years, the Breast Screening Clinic has been working to prevent premature deaths by promoting early detection at an affordable cost.
Jhagroo wants to see more women and men taking advantage of the services which she says has kept pace with the latest in technology.
“What we try to tell the women out there is early detection is your best protection. You have the best chance of survival because with early detection. There are more treatment options and with better treatment options you will be a survivor.”