Empowering Women this Breast Cancer Awareness Month
This year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is all about empowering women with the knowledge they need to stay ahead of this dreaded disease and this issue of myStrand is no exception. However, this month is also all about showing your support for breast cancer patients or warriors as some like to be called! Fighting this battle against breast cancer is akin to a near death experience for many patients. Feeling supported by family, friends as well as strangers and knowing that they do not have to suffer in silence can make a big difference!
As part of our #StayAheadOfCancer mission, we have encouraged people to show their support online and offline through the “Spread Pink. Spread Courage.“ campaign and we hope you will join us too! And if you are based in Delhi, we invite you to join the “Heritage Walk for a Cause“ this weekend! Both campaigns are organized jointly with Cheers to Life Foundation to increase awareness of breast cancer.
Thank you for reading myStrand. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or through any of the communication channels of our #StayAheadOfCancer campaign with any questions related to genetic testing and counselling for cancer and rare diseases.
The myStrand team!
Tackling the breast cancer menace
Breast cancer is scary. No doubt about that. More so, in a country where the mortality rate persists at 50% (meaning that for the total number of cancers diagnosed in a particular year, half that number are dying from the disease in the same year) it is even scarier. In fact, a recently published study said the number of women who died from breast cancer in India in 2012 was 70,000 and that this number was likely to increase to 76,000 by 2020. No wonder, people prefer not to talk about it.
However, knowing what we know today about the causes of cancer and how to best treat it, that’s far too many women, often still in their 30s and 40s. Why? – Because, in India, many women are still scared of breast cancer (and other cancers) for all the wrong reasons, none of which are anything to do with the disease itself. India is a society that’s still riddled with suspicions, belief in good omens or bad omens, and great concerns over how being truthful and open about their own health might affect marriage prospects. As a result, many women fear being ostracized by their families and friends if there is even a hint of a suspicion of a cancer diagnosis. This concern leads women to ignore health issues and not seek medical advice at the earlier stages of disease when it is far more curable. These lapses, in turn, delay timely intervention and in the worst case scenario lead to their early demise.
So, how can we change this image of breast cancer as a harbinger of death and bad fortune for the entire family? What do we have to do for breast cancer to become a disease that is approached just like any other ailment for which we routinely seek medical attention, like diabetes, high cholesterol, or a bad knee, with nobody batting an eyelid? The answer, I guess, lies in creating more awareness among all social strata about what causes cancer, how we can prevent some cancers, that early diagnosis makes a huge difference in treatment outcomes, and make sure everyone knows what to look out for in terms of early symptoms.
Over the last few years, greatly aided by the fast-expanding reach of social media, many such awareness programs have cropped up. In our own experience of reaching out to people and encouraging them to #StayAheadOfCancer, efforts to educate both women and men about the facts surrounding breast cancer are well received. We routinely get the feedback that the knowledge we provided, has empowered women to take charge of their own health and be more proactive when it comes to looking out for symptoms or looking into their family histories to understand their risk for hereditary cancer.
“My wife chose to take the Strand Hereditary Cancer Test for hereditary risk prediction after attending a ‘Stay Ahead of Cancer’ seminar. She did not have any symptoms but the test showed that she has a faulty BRCA1 gene. She now undergoes routine clinical examination every six months to check for signs of breast cancer. She feels reassured that she, and not the disease is in charge of her health.”
-K.R. Kumaran*- working with an MNC software company in Bangalore
October being the designated month for Breast Cancer Awareness, we have provided a number of useful resources on our Facebook page, ranging from a list of symptoms to look out for, to instructions on how to conduct a breast self-examination in the privacy of your own home, to preventive options and how lifestyle affects breast cancer risk. There is also dedicated Breast Cancer Awareness playlist on our YouTube channel including a video on breast cancer and breast self-examination in Hindi. We encourage you to look at those resources or share them with your friends, because if you know what you are looking for you can get it checked out by a doctor sooner. Remember, the key to beating breast cancer is early diagnosis!
*name changed to protect privacy
Take the Strand Hereditary Cancer Risk Test!
True, only around 10% of cancer cases can be attributed to an inherited mutation that runs in the family. But knowing whether the cancer cases in your family are caused by such a mutation or not puts you in the driving seat when it comes to managing your health!
Take our Hereditary Cancer Risk Test to know whether your family history of cancer means you are at a high, moderate, or low risk of suffering from hereditary cancer!
Breast Cancer: The Elephant in the Room
What is the current state of health of a country? Who looks at this data and makes sense of it? Short answer – epidemiologists! These scientists collect data about various health problems and then analyze the data to understand trends in our success or failures in tackling these issues. So, what do the numbers predict for breast cancer?? Not a pretty picture, for sure. India is looking at a big surge in the number of breast cancer cases in the next two decades to come.
One could argue that India is also experiencing a wave of development and therefore, we can face the problem, head-on. Although this optimism is right, there are some hidden challenges that we, as a population, are going to face.
First and foremost, a large number of Indian women and men (yes, men can have breast cancer too) are not very comfortable talking about intimate health issues. Taboos surrounding the discussion around problems related to reproductive health prevent women from understanding and coming forth with their own issues. Such social barriers have been reported in other Asian cultures as well. The net result is that quite often, the signs and symptoms of breast cancer go unnoticed until the disease attains stage III or stage IV. One scientific study from Iran has actually shown that if women practice breast self-examination, the number of early stage diagnoses (less than stage III) of breast cancer can go up! This is welcome news because in breast cancer, early diagnosis means better chances of survival of the patient.
Another worrisome factor in India is that we appear to have a higher percentage of rogue genes that increase our risk for breast cancer. Having bad genes can increase your chances of developing breast and ovarian cancer from the baseline 10% to ~40%. Fortunately, there is a solution for this problem! There are predictive genetic tests that can tell you what your personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer is, well BEFORE you actually develop cancer. If you take a predictive, risk-assessment test, you can get a very accurate answer to the question: Do I have bad genes that increase my risk of suffering from cancer later in life, or not? If the test results are positive, then people can devise a medical surveillance program to check for signs of the disease, sometimes even more frequently than the recommended annual health check-up for women above 40.
The increasing urbanization of our country also means that women are having fewer children than what they would have had a few decades ago. Pregnancy and breastfeeding have a risk-reducing effect on breast tissues. However, when the number of pregnancies experienced by women is controlled, their risk for breast cancer is elevated. Therefore, creating awareness about breast cancer and regular surveillance measures is very important in the Indian context.
Weight gain, especially truncal obesity is associated with a higher risk for developing breast cancer in women in their 40s and 50s. In pre-menopausal as well as post-menopausal women, carrying a little weight around the middle can increase their risk for breast cancer. Ideally, women should have a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of 0.8-0.9, in order to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer (source and image credit: Nagrani R, et al. 2016).
So, what can one do to manage this risk for breast cancer? A routine breast self-exam, conducted in total privacy and comfort of your home, could be the first step. Adopting a healthy lifestyle and maintaining physical fitness can also go a long way in reducing the risk for breast cancer.
The most effective strategy would be to determine your own personal risk for breast and ovarian cancer using a predictive genetic test. About 60% of the people who have taken this test so far, have come out with flying colors! They do not have rogue genes in their DNA but the decision to take the test, which includes free genetic counselling, has empowered them with highly valuable information on how to minimize cancer risk.
Join us on a “Heritage Walk for a Cause”
If you are in the Delhi area this Saturday, 28 October 2017, join us on a morning walk at Mehrauli Archeological Park near Qutub Minar from 9am to 12pm and show your support for breast cancer warriors like Dimple Bawa and many others. Register to get a free campaign T-shirt at the event!