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Breast cancer: The hide after the seek

health and fitness Updated: May 08, 2010 22:57 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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You would think most people would have sense enough to go to a doctor to get treated after being told they have a life-threatening disease.

Apparently, it does not always happen. More so when the diagnosis is breast cancer.

True, breast-mauling surgery and hair falling in clumps can be any woman’s nightmare, but it should not frighten them into putting their lives at risk.

“It’s partly denial and partly the fear of surgery and the side-effects related to chemotherapy that prompt some women to turn to alternative medicine and even prayer in hope that the cancer will go away,” said Dr Ashok K. Vaid, chairman, medical oncology, Medanta Cancer Institute, Gurgaon.

What is worrying specialists such as him is the fact that the fear not just affects the ignorant and the poor but also the educated and the affluent, who can afford the best possible treatment available in the hospital and country of their choice.

A case Dr Vaid can immediately recall is that of a 55-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer in November but turned up for treatment in February. “By opting for yoga and naturopathy — she went on a raw, uncooked food diet for three whole months — she ended up with just what she was trying to avoid: stronger chemotherapy because the cancer had spread,” he said.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among urban women and the second-most common cancer after cervical cancer in India. More than nine out of 10 women diagnosed in the early stages survive, as opposed to one in five at a later stage.

Getting diagnosed and treated is half the battle won. This week, a new study from India showed that diagnostic tools such as a whole-body magnetic resonance imaging or MRI — which uses powerful magnets to create an image of the body — accurately detected breast tumours that had spread to the bone, even when there were no symptoms, offering a safe way to check patients.

The study, done by Pune’s Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital and Research Centre and presented at the American Roentgen Ray Society meeting in San Diego on Friday, said the whole-body MRI should be the method of choice for checking to see if breast cancer has spread.

The Pune study underlines recent research that recommended non-radiation screening such as ultrasounds and MRI to mammography, which uses low-dose radiation. Data from 5,000 women in the US and Europe presented at the Radiological Society of North America conference in Chicago in December, showed that annual mammography screening doubled the risk of breast cancer in women with genetic or familial predisposition to the cancer.

“Internationally, annual screening with mammography and MRI is recommended from the age of 30 years for women with a family history of breast cancer and for healthy women at 40, but self-examination for lumps should begin at 18,” said Dr G. K. Rath, chief of the Rotary Cancer Institute at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

If you are worried about radiation, do a self-exam or get your doctor to do a thorough physical exam and when in doubt, get screened using an ultrasound or an MRI. Improved technology, in fact, is now making accurate diagnosis possible at 40 per cent lower radiation doses.

Once diagnosed, follow the treatment through. Alternative therapies are fine as long as they complement medical treatment, be it surgery, radiation or chemotherapy in different permutation-combinations. Yoga may make you fitter and improve mood, but it won’t make the malignant lump go away.