Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

‘Know me’

A breast-cancer awareness campaign wants to reduce the stigma of breast cancer, reports Ghada Abdel-Kader

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“There are no accurate statistics about the exact number of breast cancer patients in Egypt, but of the patients who enter the National Cancer Institute 35 per cent are diagnosed with breast cancer. The early detection of breast cancer increases cure rates dramatically,” said Ghada Mustafa, a spokesperson for the Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt (BCFE).

The BCFE has launched an online campaign called Shofni Sah, or “Know Me,” which aims to end misconceptions about breast cancer. It is also in direct contact with patients.

“We have seen and heard a lot of stories from patients. Women have spoken directly to us about their personal experiences and what they have been going through,” Mustafa said.

“For the moment it is just an electronic campaign, and the hashtag ‘Shofni Sah’ will be available on Facebook. We have another Facebook page called ‘Ahkleena’ [Tell Us] on which breast cancer patients tell their stories and personal experiences,” she added.

Cancer survivor Amal Kotb, 55, is a housewife and the mother of three sons. She was the first in her family to have breast cancer, discovered seven years ago when she found a lump under her arm. “I had surgery to remove the tumour and then chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I do regular check-ups now every year,” Kotb said.

Cancer patients may undergo physical changes, and they may have difficulty struggling with them. “The way people deal with cancer patients is sometimes as if they are going to die,” said Kotb. “This can really hurt and have a negative impact on a woman’s psychological state.

“But my husband and my whole family were big supporters of me during the different stages of my illness,” she said, adding that cancer should be seen as like any other disease. “Speak up loud and be strong. Don’t be ashamed of the fact that you have breast cancer,” Kotb advised other patients.

“Oncology doctors also have an important role to play in explaining to a wife and her husband what the cancer is. They can ease fears and misconceptions about it,” she said.

Cancer survivor Zeinab Snoussi, 54, is an employee and the mother of three sons. She also discovered her cancer seven years ago. “I felt a pain in my left breast. I went to the doctor who said the cause of the pain could be in the mammary glands. After clinical examination, he told me it was breast cancer.

“I had surgery in which the left breast was removed, followed by chemotherapy. I didn’t have radiation or hormone therapy,” Snoussi said.

Her sons were young at the time and did not understand what was happening. After a year her husband got married to another woman and refused to divorce her. “The whole thing had a very negative impact on me. It was a very shocking experience,” she said.

“I have always believed that what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. Now, I have check-ups, blood tests, examinations and x-rays with additional testing and a clinical breast exam every year to detect any changes.”

Mustafa stressed the importance of changing misconceptions about women with breast cancer in Egypt. “We should do our best to offer them love, support and appreciation,” Mustafa said, and combat false ideas wherever they may be found.

Tarek Aboul-Nasr is the head of the surgical oncology unit at the Nile Hospital in Cairo. As he says, cancer is “never infectious. It cannot be transferred to someone else’s body.”

His comments are important, Mustafa said. “We have received private messages from many husbands on our Facebook page asking about their wives who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and whether they could be infected with cancer during intimacy,” she said.

Some people even refer to women who are diagnosed with breast cancer as being punished for something they have done wrong. Mustafa said that this meant that a woman’s family and children are also being punished. “If God loves someone He may well present them with trials or difficulties in order eventually to double their reward,” she said.

Some people may also misunderstand radiotherapy, thinking that a woman who is receiving it may be harmful to them. “Some people are afraid of a woman who receives radiotherapy because they think she has somehow become poisonous. But this is totally wrong. The radiotherapy targets only the tumour to remove any remaining carcinogenic cells and after that no rays remain in the patient’s body,” she explained.

Others may feel pity for breast cancer patients, especially those who are young and single, as they may think they will not be able to get married and have children like other women. “After a woman patient has recovered from treatment and an acceptable period of time has passed she can get pregnant and have a baby like any other woman,” Mustafa said.

Additionally, some patients may have to bear the stigma that can still be associated with the disease. Some patients and even survivors may face discrimination in general and in the workplace in particular. It may be hard for women to take time off for chemotherapy, and women suffering from breast cancer may face discrimination from employers.

“Women patients with breast cancer have the right to work and to take sick-leave from work to have chemotherapy or radiation sessions,” said Mustapha. “In some jobs appearance and image are important, however, and this has led to some patients being dismissed or moved to administrative work because of possible changes to their appearance.

“But cancer is not a disability. It does not mean death, and treatment in most cases if the disease is caught early enough is successful.”

For husbands, children, friends and relatives of breast cancer patients, it is important to know how to be supportive. “The psychological health of the breast cancer patient is very important as it has a direct impact on her physical health and immune system fighting the disease,” said Aboul-Nasr. “If the immune system decreases, this increases the tumour’s ability to grow and spread.”

Cancer survivor Shadia Mohamed, 53, is a housewife. She said it was vital that she be cured in order to spend her life with her children. “That’s what gave me an enormous push to beat the disease. My daughter Iman and my husband were my biggest supporters,” she said.

“Ninety-eight per cent of breast cancer cases could be cured if they were detected early enough through regular check-ups, mammograms and self-examination,” said Mustafa.

“The discovery of breast cancer in its earlier stages helps doctors to remove the tumour alone and not the entire breast. This helps women to be in a good emotional state and resist the disease,” said Aboul-Nasr.

There is no a clear cause of breast cancer, although conditions like diabetes or HIV infection, as well as certain drugs that may cause weakness or deficiency of the immune system, may make women more prone to the disease. Aboul-Nasr believes that many occurrences of cancer are related to poor eating habits, among them a lack of vegetables and fruit, especially green leafy vegetables, in the diet.

Fried and fatty foods that include oxidised and polyunsaturated fats and refined starch are also indicated in some cancers, as is eating burnt food. Women who are overweight or obese also may have an increased cancer risk, as may women who do not take regular exercise.

“Breast cancer patients can often return to normal life after three months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment,” Aboul-Nasr said. “They can resume their family life and go back to her work.”

He advises cancer patients who have been successfully treated to continue their self-examinations. They should get regular check-ups, blood tests, x-rays and mammograms with an oncologist every six months for the next five years to make sure there is no recurrence.

“There is a risk that the cancer may come back in the same place or somewhere else in the body,” he added.

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