According to Cancer research UK, breast cancer is by far the most common cancer diagnosed in women worldwide, ranking second in both sexes combined. An estimated 1.38 million women across the world were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, accounting for nearly a quarter (23%) of all cancers diagnosed in women.
On Saturday 12th of this month I gladly donned my pink scarf in place of the pink ribbon, walked and ran 10 km as part of a strong crowd of pationate breast cancer fighters in support of the Ocean Road Cancer Institute. If it was about the distance then we could have walked on and on but our motivation could not have been greater than what it was. Hundreds of us had gathered at the Kunduchi beach hotel ready to take on the road as a symbol of our solidarity with the thousands of women affected by breast cancer around the world and particularly in Tanzania.
Tanzania faces a number of challenges when it comes to addressing the issue of breast cancer as you read the following stories of 2 courageous women and one man who watched as his mother fought for her life:
Story 1: A case of misdiagnosis
I felt pain in my breast one morning and then I noticed a lump. I thought it was not something to worry about and so I ignored it. One week later the pain was intolerable that I decided to visit the hospital. After long queues I finally managed to speak to a tired doctor that was obviously fade up with the under staffed hospital. He examined me and assured me that it was nothing serious and that I should go home, drink plenty of water, fruits, have rest and a good night sleep. What the doctor had advised me seemed rational, to be honest I could use some rest as I live a busy life taking care of my home and kids as well as my small business . It was about 3 days after my hospital visit that the pain became too much for me and I decided to seek a second opinion from a different hospital. When the doctor examined me he looked worried and told me that this was not normal and I should have the lump surgically removed as soon as possible. He set an appointment for me to come back the following week. Unfortunately I was pretty busy with my daily life that I was 3 weeks overdue when I finally managed to see the doctor again. It was too late. He referred me to a specialist hospital where I had to take some test. A series of test and a few back and forth and I finally got my results. I had breast cancer. It felt like the end of my life!
Problem: A lack of trained or over worked doctors that are more focused on the numbers than the service.
Story 2: Suffering in silence
I walked in to the cancer unit for counselling and check up. It was not the first time I was here but I was pretty anxious. I felt encouraged when I saw other women around. I was not alone! To calm my nerves I decided to have a chat with them. I was shocked on how much they were in denial about their situation. None of them would admit that they had the same problem as me. So i started opening up to them and told them that I was also diagnosed with breast cancer and I had one of my breast removed. One of the women looked at me with a puzzled face. ‘How come you look fine. I mean you seem to have both your breasts.’ She did not believe it! I explained to her that I was using a prosthetic breast. All the other women became interested in our conversation and they slowly joined in and started asking me about my experience which I gladly shared. Talking about breast cancer and breasts in particular remains a taboo in my society and thus many women are left to suffer silently as they shy off from expressing their fears. It is this women that encouraged me to get involved and actively campaign for better education of women with regards to breast cancer and their health.
Problem: A lack of awareness and proper counselling to women about their health.
Story 3: Feeling Helpless
My mum had arrived from Mbeya and told me she had an appointment to see the doctor. Back then I did not quiz her about it. After her appointment the doctor referred her to the Ocean Road Cancer Institute for some tests that is when I realised that this could be a serious issue. The moment my mother had about the referral she protested and said that she did not want to be sent to her death. I tried to consult and persuade my mother to go for the test so that we could ensure that there was nothing wrong. My mother remained firm with her decision and few days later boarded the bus and left Daresalaam back to Mbeya. The time gap between my mum’s dramatic return to Mbeya and the call i got that she had become seriously ill did not seem to be that long. I rushed to my mum’s city and drove to the capital like a mad man. When the results of the tests came back it was too late. Both of my mum’s breast had been affected by cancer and according to the doctors there it was too late for treatment. The days that followed were the most difficult days in my life. My mums breasts had formed wounds and were bleeding heavily. We had to change her dressing more that three times in a day. It was hard work, I was not sure if I was doing the right thing and there was no one to ask for help. I watched my mum suffering in pain as the days went by. She passed away 3 months later.
Problem: Lack of support for carers
“Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. The chance that breast cancer will be responsible for a woman’s death is about 1 in 36 (about 3%). Death rates from breast cancer have been declining since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening and increased awareness, as well as improved treatment.” (www.cancer.org)
Breast cancer is not selective. It can affect any woman of any race and age. It is for this reason that I will continue to support any initiative that is set to help in fighting the effect of breast cancer.