Cancer is no longer a death sentence, and to get this message across, efforts are on to dispel fears and infuse optimism into the lives of hundreds of women, their families and the community at large

Most of us are fighters, says a breast cancer survivor, summing up hers and many other women’s experience with the disease.

With the rising incidence of breast cancer in the city, fighting is essential to survival, but so is a positive outlook, say doctors.

Cancer is no longer a death sentence, and to get this message across, efforts are on to dispel fears and infuse optimism into the lives of hundreds of women, their families and the community at large.

Oncologists emphasise that education about early diagnosis, prompt treatment and a healthy lifestyle will help considerably.

“Awareness about breast cancer is on the rise in urban and semi-urban areas, and is catching up among rural women. But early detection is the mantra to improve treatment outcomes, longevity and quality of life,” said Malliga J.S., who is in charge of preventive oncology at the Cancer Institute, Adyar.

‘Catch them young’, is what oncologists advocate. “Girls should start self-examination of their breasts from the age of 20. Women are still hesitant to come in for screening. They are afraid of cancer and think they will never get it. Even educated persons think cancer means death, but it is not so,” she added.

Out of every 100 women, only around 25 volunteer for screening, even if it was free and offered at their locality, she said.

Patients are either very informed or lack any information, said Radha Devi, a cancer survivor, who is part of a support group at the institute. “Educated people come in with too much information from the internet. This creates a sense of fear. On the contrary, poor people have no idea and think cancer is contagious. There is still a lot of social stigma attached to cancer and this needs to be addressed,” she said.

The age of women diagnosed with breast cancer is reducing, said K. Kalaichelvi, head, department of medical oncology, Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital. “Twenty years ago, 60 to 70 per cent of breast cancer patients were above the age of 50 and 30 per cent were between 30 and 40. Now, 50 per cent of breast cancer patients are aged below 50,” she said.

She attributed the trend to factors including changes in lifestyle, food habits, obesity, delays in the birth of the first child, environmental pollution and exposure to pesticides.

R. Rajaraman, head, centre for oncology, Government Royapettah Hospital, said that unlike earlier, more patients were coming in at earlier stages.

However, there is a long way to go: 70-80 per cent of patients still came in only when the cancer had already advanced in the breast. More awareness and curbing fears of treatment was essential to changing this, doctors said.

Everyday heroines

Arulmozhi Kumar

Age: 51 years

Arulmozhi Kumar was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time when there was not much awareness about the disease. “The year was 1998. I was 38 years old. At that point, I thought my life was over,” she said.

Today, she is a proud cancer survivor. But the journey has been a tough – especially during her early years of battling cancer.

“I found out only because my menstrual cycle was delayed. My family thought I was pregnant with my second child and asked me to go to a doctor after 3 months. After nearly 50 days, I could not lift my right hand and found that my armpit had turned red,” she said.

With her eight-year-old son, Arulmozhi approached a private doctor who told her that she was not pregnant but had problems of irregular periods and examined her. “She told me there was a gooseberry-sized lump in my breast. I was admitted to a private hospital and they removed the tumour and sent it for a biopsy. The result confirmed that it was malignant and I was asked to go to the Cancer Institute.”

But a second shock awaited her at the institute. “The doctors told me that the tumour should not have been removed, and that a needle biopsy would have been the appropriate procedure. They said I could not be treated and I was about to leave the hospital premises, disappointed and crying, when they called me back and treated me. I underwent chemotherapy and here I am, coming in for annual check-ups since then,” she said.

Arulmozhi said women were still terrified at the thought of cancer, and if in a joint family, would avoid telling relatives. “This has to change. Awareness should percolate into villages too,” she said.

Gracey Varghese

Age: 55

Like most other women, Gracey Varghese never gave cancer a thought. Even if she did, she never imagined she would get it. But cancer stared her in the face in 2002, when she was 44 years old. “I knew there was an abnormality in my breast but I delayed seeking treatment. As a result, the disease had reached stage 2 when I finally went in for a diagnosis,” she said.

Coming to terms with the disease was tough for this market research consultant, and initially, she broke down. “But eventually, I gained the strength to accept what had happened. If I had not tried to avoid early treatment, I could have saved my breast,” she said.

Unlike today, when there are support groups to counsel patients, Gracey had no information about treatment modalities, particularly chemotherapy. “I did not know whether it would be painful. There was nobody to prepare me for the treatment,” she said.

Now working as a freelance consultant, Gracey says people still look at cancer as a death sentence and have misconceptions about it, including that it is contagious. “Cancer can come to anyone. It is better to identify the symptoms at an early stage and go in for treatment,” she said.

C. Jayachithra

Age: 44

Wearing a badge that says “I Listen”, Jayachithra stands in the middle of a crowded room at the Cancer Institute, Adyar. One after another, patients or their relatives approach her with questions about cancer. “They understand things better when I tell them that I am a cancer survivor, that I too lost my hair during treatment and that it grew again later,” she said. Now part of the Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Women Cancer Support Group – she handles questions with ease.

“In 2006, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I did not tell my family for several hours. Even before I could come to terms with the diagnosis, I received a second blow: doctors said my bones too, were affected. I underwent surgery for the removal of the tumour and had chemotherapy as well. My ovaries too, were removed to prevent the disease from spreading,” she said.

Jayachithra recovered by turning her attention towards learning to design saris, salwar suits and jewellery. “I was practically an introvert but now I interact with many people. We are trying to teach yoga to patients, as breathing exercises help calm them,” she said.

People often try to compare their treatments with others, she said, adding, “We make them understand that each patient has a different treatment scheme according to her condition. When I am here interacting with people, I get to learn something new every day, and this motivates me.”

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