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     Volume 6 Issue 43 | November 9, 2007 |

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Straight Talk

Breast Cancer -- The Silent Killer

In the last decade and a half, the month of October has become synonymous with Breast Cancer awareness. In fact in 1993 Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) was introduced as a worldwide campaign by Evelyn Lauder (Senior Corporate Vice President of the Estée Lauder Companies). She also established the Pink Ribbon as its symbol. For some years now, the pink ribbon has gained huge recognition and become an international symbol of breast cancer awareness. The reason behind BCAM was to raise general awareness of breast cancer, to try and raise funds for its detection, prevention and cure, to further research of the disease and also to support people who have been affected by this particular type of cancer. These days, it is not just the main breast cancer and cancer charities all over the UK who do their utmost to continue to advocate the cause of breast cancer awareness every October. It has now expanded to other organisations as well and it is heartening to see a concerted effort by many Breast Cancer supporters to not just raise awareness of this disease but to raise funds as well. Many shops and high profile brands also find ways of participating in this campaign.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women. It is quite daunting to know that over 44,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and more than 1,000 women die from the disease every month in the UK. However, up until recently it was a topic that people did not want to discuss openly. There were certain types of stigma associated with breast cancer. Women felt that it would be an end to their womanhood to be diagnosed with breast cancer as they felt that the only treatment available was a mastectomy or total breast removal for this particular cancer. This is no longer the case and it is important to understand that breast cancer is not just one single disease. There are several types of breast cancer, all of which can be detected at different stages of development and grow at different rates. Not only that but, treatment can vary depending on the type of breast cancer a person is diagnosed with and which stage it has been detected. Treatment can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy, either alone or in any combination.

Although the exact causes of breast cancer are still not certain, research has shown that women with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop the disease. As we are all different, and our bodies react and respond differently, not all the known associated risk factors will affect us all in the same way. Just to give you an idea, one of the risk factors is just age - 80% of all breast cancer occurs in women over the age of 50. As a woman gets older, the risk factor increases but this does not mean that younger women should become complacent as it is also possible to get breast cancer at an earlier age although this is rarer. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. other risk factors can include diets high in saturated fat, older age at birth of first child or never having given birth, a family history, particularly a mother or sister, obesity, treatment with radiation therapy to the breast/chest, taking hormones such as estrogen and progesterone etc.

As far as the symptoms are concerned, it is necessary for women to be aware of what their breasts look and feel like as changes in their breast may be an early indication. Without seeming to be an alarmist one should be aware of changes such as size (if one breast becomes larger or lower), rashes, skin change, swelling, pain or a lump or thickening in a part of the breast. It is also worth noting that there is a misconception that any pain or lump in the breast is indicative of breast cancer. In many instances, the lumps are benign and no cause for concern. A mammogram (a breast x-ray) can identify the early stages of breast cancer and if a patient shows any of the given symptoms, it is very likely that the doctor or consultant will start by requesting a mammogram.

There is another misconception that only women suffer from breast cancer but this is not the case. There are incidents where men have been diagnosed with the illness although it is uncommon. Around 300 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year. The risk factors for men are similar to that of women as it is more likely to be detected in older men (men who get breast cancer are usually over the age of 60). The other factors are obesity, high estrogen levels, Kleinfelter's syndrome - a rare hereditary condition that can increase breast cancer risk etc. It is worthwhile for men to be informed about breast cancer as well as women.

I realise that in Bangladesh this is something that people do not like to talk about as it is an embarrassing subject. There is not enough awareness about breast cancer and women do not know the causes, symptoms or treatment for the disease. But it is something that should be addressed. The thought of going to a doctor and exposing themselves for a check up is not just uncomfortable but also may not be acceptable in our society. However, losing one's life to breast cancer is a high price to pay for modesty. It may be necessary for more female doctors to become more active in the fight against breast cancer in Bangladesh.

It is with great interest that I read about Nokia's commitment to sponsoring and supporting breast cancer awareness in Bangladesh. They are working in conjunction with the Bangladesh Cancer Foundation (BCF) to try and raise the awareness in the general population. The programme which was due to last for a couple of weeks commencing on the 27th of October 2007 intended to provide free breast cancer screening and consultations at screening camps around the country. A variety of treatments were also offered at a subsidised rate. If this kind of campaign can gain momentum in our country, then it may be possible to reduce the number of women and men who suffer from breast cancer without being diagnosed and treated and could ultimately save thousands of lives.

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