How are advanced technologies garnering the spotlight in the fight against Breast Cancer

As we observe October as breast cancer awareness month, it becomes imperative for women to be aware, well informed and choose the right treatment for breast cancer.

When British actress and singer, Sarah Harding opened up about her breast cancer, it was a bolt from the blue for her fans. In a post on one of her social media handles, she revealed that she was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in 2020 and now the cancer has advanced to other parts of her body. Along from Harding, there are about 1.38 million new cases and 458,000 deaths from breast cancer each year. As we observe October as breast cancer awareness month, it becomes imperative for women to be aware, well informed and choose the right treatment for breast cancer.

Although there is no known prevention for breast cancer occurrence yet, early screening and timely prognosis of the disease can save millions of lives. The five-year relative survival rate for stage zero to stage one breast cancer is between 90 to 100 percent. This means, people with early stage of breast cancer are almost 100 percent likely to survive for at least five years as doctors can treat these tumours present in the breast before they spread to other parts of the body. One in 28 women is likely to develop breast cancer during her lifetime and in India, the disease claimed more than 87,000 deaths in 2018. As per a latest survey by Survivor Net, women have also pushed their regular mammography examination and other preventive measures due to the fear of contracting COVID-19 virus. What has hindered the improvement of breast cancer survival rate in the country is the disturbing fact that the disease is diagnosed in the advanced stage for 60-70 percent of women. This is very high in our country due to lack of awareness, minimal access to healthcare facilities especially due to COVID-19 and social-cultural attitudes.

This breast cancer awareness month, let us understand the importance of self-examination, screening procedures and timely treatment in our fight against breast cancer.

How can self-examination of breasts help in detecting breast cancer?

Self-examination is the first step to detect breast cancer. This is done right after the woman completes her monthly menses and the ones who have already gone through menopause, should mark a date. The cost-free detection procedure requires women to face the mirror with hands over their hips. By raising the arms and using fingers, they need to look for any unfamiliar indications like dimpling on the skin, lump on the breast or armpits, nipple pain, discharge from the nipple or changes in the size of the breast. For women between 29 to 39 years of age, a three yearly clinical breast examination is recommended. Women above 40 years of age, should get clinical breast examination and mammography screening once in a year.

Detecting breast cancer at early stage with minimally invasive technologies

When breast cells begin to grow out of control and abnormally, breast cancer occurs. The tumor formed by the cells can either be felt in the form of a lump or can be visualised on mammography examination. Breast cancer usually starts in the ducts or lobules that can spread to other parts of the body through the blood vessels. The most common symptoms of breast cancer include lump or skin thickening or dimpling on the breast, change in the shape, size or appearance of a breast and unusual discharge from the nipple.

The conventional way of diagnosing breast cancer is by techniques such as surgical biopsy, imaging tests and nipple discharge cytology. As technological innovations in medical science have redefined cancer care, we now have alternative minimally invasive procedures such as VABB or Vacuum-Assisted Breast Biopsy that help in detecting microscopic malignancies. Carried with digital mammograph and ultrasound, the technique reduces the need of multiple biopsies as it allows to collect adequate specimen with a single insertion. Besides aiding in diagnosis, VABB also helps in the removal of cancerous lesions up to three cm. The procedure is scar less as it entails the insertion of the needle once that does not leave any visible scar. VABB has an edge over the traditional procedures as it eliminates the need of re-biopsy due to sufficient sample collection in single insertion. While it is critical to get lumps tested, one must note that not all lumps are cancerous. If the person is facing any doubt, scar less and minimally invasive diagnostic procedures like VABB come to the rescue.

The way forward

Delaying breast cancer screening will delay diagnosis of breast cancer. Ignorance, poverty, illiteracy, less importance to women’s health and superstition have contributed to delayed timely medical intervention for women staying in rural parts of India. As per a study conducted by doctoral students, one in three women living in rural parts of India has not even heard of breast cancer and 90 percent of them are unaware about self-examining their own breasts. Some reports also state that women who belong to low socioeconomic strata and have less education, may ignore a lump even when they notice it. These gaps were already prevalent and now, breast screening programmes have taken a backseat owing to the pandemic. However, these services need to resume, and we must ensure that all women get access to breast screening more frequently. Moreover, spreading awareness is the key to manage the menace of breast cancer.

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