Every woman’s worst nightmare

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Part 1

SHE first noticed the lump in her breast in the last week of December 2006. “Initially, I felt a pain in my left armpit,” recalled Rosalinda E. Villaseca, the founding president of the Davao-based Mindanao Cooperative Cancer Society.

hf01a-021017She reckoned the pain must be due to the stressful driving she did from Panabao City to Davao City and then back to Panabo again. Days passed and she forgot all about it. Then, while waiting for some companions in their office, she happened to read a health feature in a magazine. She was alarmed; the lump in her breast must be something else.

Three weeks after she felt the lump, Villaseca immediately went to see a physician. She was praying that what she was thinking about was just that – a thought. But everything crumbled when the doctor diagnosed her of having a breast cancer.

Villaseca was totally terrified upon hearing the diagnosis, but later on she realizes that everyone has to die anyway. “I accepted it fully as His will,” she said. Considering that she was already 62 years old at that time she was diagnosed, “I am ready to return to Him as our life in this world is just borrowed.”

Around the world, breast cancer is the leading killer of women ages 35 to 54. “There are about about 1.38 million new cases and 458 000 deaths from breast cancer each year,” the World Health Organization (WHO) reports. “Breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women worldwide, both in the developed and developing countries.”

hf01b-021017In Asia, the Philippines is at the center of the battle against breast cancer. Aside from having the highest incidence rate in the region, the Philippines is among the top 10 countries with the most cases of breast cancer, according to a document released by the Asian Hospital and Medical Center (AHMC).

Both the Department of Health (DOH) and the Philippine Cancer Society, Inc. (PCSI) considered breast cancer as the most common form of cancer in the country – particularly among women. “One out of every 13 Filipino women is expected to develop breast cancer in her lifetime,” the AHMC document stated.

A press release from the Body Form Philippines, Inc. said that 3 out of 100 Filipino women will contract the disease before age 75. The Philippine Society of Medical Oncology also said that one out of 10 will die before reaching the age of 75.

The Geneva-based United Nations health agency reports that one out of four women who are diagnosed with breast cancer die within the first five years. What’s even alarming is that most women only consult a doctor when it is too late.

Had it not been for Dr. Judy Fuentes, her obstetrician-gynecologist, movie actress Liezel would never know she had breast cancer. After all, there were no symptoms but Dr. Fuentes insisted that women her age should undergo breast examinations annually. 

She did and after subsequent tests, she was diagnosed of having a cancer.  After battling of the cancer for seven years, she died at the age of 47.

Breast cancer usually begins with formation of a small, localized tumor. “Some tumors are benign that they do not invade other tissue; others are malignant or cancerous,” explains The Medical Advisor: The Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments. “The potential for a malignant tumor to spread is common to all cancer. Once such a tumor grows to a certain size, it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.”

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. More than 80 percent of breast cancer cases are discovered as a lump by the woman herself.

Generally, a lump in the breast can be known through breast self-examination (BSE). One local study reveals that only 54 percent had ever done a BSE, of whom only 27 percent are still practicing it at an average of 9.2 times a year. Some of the reasons given for not doing the BSE: “no symptoms,” “busy,” “don’t know how,” “don’t like,” “don’t think important,” always forget,” “afraid,” and “not aware.”

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.

Although the precise causes of breast cancer are unclear, there are some known risk factors. The risk factors that most fact sheets and bulletins on breast cancer identify include family history (mother, sister, daughter or relatives), genetics, early and repeated exposure to relatively high doses of radiation, and long-term post-menopausal estrogen replacement.

Women who started their menstrual cycle at a younger age (before 12) or went through menopause later (after 55) have a slightly increased risk. Also, women with no children or having the first child after age 30 increases the risk of breast cancer.

Other risk factors include having a dense breast tissue, being overweight, and drinking alcohol (the risk is proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed) and smoking.

Women should watch what they eat. Recent studies have shown that cooking methods like boiling food in coconut milk have been associated with a significantly increased risk of breast cancer in the country. Another study suggests that high intake of deep-fried, well-done red meat may be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

Breastfeeding for one-and-a-half to two years might slightly lower the risk of breast cancer, some studies show.  Exercise also seems to lower the risk.

Unlike in the Western world, where most breast cancer victims are old, those from the Philippines are getting younger. “It’s very peculiar for the Philippines why it’s like that,” observes Nikoy de Guzman, a breast cancer survivor who is the collaboration chairman of the icanserve Foundation, Inc., an advocacy group championing early detection of breast cancer. “Frankly speaking, despite all the advances, we really don’t know why there’s a high incidence.”

To be concluded

Image Credits: Skypixel | Dreamstime.com, Wisconsinart | Dreamstime.com