Although breast cancer awareness is of particular importance and takes centre stage every October, it is only through actions that we can make a dent in the immensity that is breast cancer statistics.
According to medical aid scheme Profmed, 2020’s mammogram statistics are already down by 30%. While this is a direct result of pandemic panic, oncologist Georgia Demetriou from the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre believes a spike of undiagnosed late-stage breast cancer cases is just down the road and is likely to have a devastating impact on breast cancer in South Africa.
To put into perspective, breast cancer is the most commonly contracted cancer worldwide with approximately19.4 million South African women 15 years and older living at-risk of being diagnosed with this disease. With 2020 being what it is, the resulting onset of a worldwide pandemic has only hindered the fight against breast cancer, not just in South Africa but across the world.
Dr Demetriou says early detection is vital, which means not only checking your breasts for lumps regularly but also making an appointment at your local radiology or oncology unit for proper screening, especially if you felt something abnormal in your breasts.
“I know there is a lot of anxiety around visiting hospitals during this time but I am here to say that the risk of breast cancer is far greater than the risk of COVID-19, which is almost completely avoidable given the right precautions.”
Demetriou says that a breast cancer diagnosis is by no means a death sentence, but she does warn that an early or late diagnosis can mean the difference between a cure and certain death.
When it comes to cancer patients and COVID-19, she says she hasn’t seen COVID affect the cancer treatment too poorly. “It has already been found in various studies that many cancer patients receiving treatment that contract COVID doesn’t necessarily fare any worse. This could be aided by the fact that cancer patients are typically very vigilant patients as they understand what is at stake.”
Dr Demetriou believes the drop in mammogram appointments is the true impact of COVID-19 on cancer, especially for breast cancer. “We say it over and over again. Early detection does save lives. It is so easy to perform a self-examination once a month. By doing this you are already in a good place if you ever do feel something abnormal. But once you do, you have to schedule a mammogram. There are no two ways about it.”
Dr Demetriou acknowledges the fear that has been generated in this current COVID-19 context but seeks to reassure any women with second thoughts. “I work in this environment every day. Believe me when I say that hospitals and oncology units are taking all the necessary precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19. Make an appointment and get checked out. An hour of your time could save your life.”
For women over the age of 40, Dr Demetriou advises scheduling a mammogram even if no symptoms are apparent or lump has been found. “If you are a woman over 40, your risk is increased so it is advisable to schedule a screening mammogram every one of two years. If you have a history of cancer in your family, you should schedule a mammogram for ten years before the age that your family member contracted cancer.”
Although, she also warns women under 40 that breast cancer remains a risk. “Ask any oncologist and they will tell you all about the young people they see come into their offices. Yes, breast cancer mostly appears in older women, but thinking it can’t happen to you because you are young is a deadly misconception.”
While it starts with a simple self-examination, Dr Demetriou says if women don’t take the next step by scheduling a mammogram or at least contacting their local health professional, then the battle may have already been lost. “Don’t become a statistic. Know your breasts. Examine yourself monthly and don’t be afraid to schedule a mammogram.”