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Coping with cancer

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Faith, family and good doctors help pave the way to recovery, breast cancer survivors tell Ronita Torcato during the ongoing Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Cancer is corrosive. It does ugly things to the human body. There are more than 100 different types of cancers with each patient probably suffering other illnesses in tandem, like diabetes or a troubled heart but for a woman, there is , arguably, none so devastating  as breast cancer.  For the cancer which attacks the milk-secreting organ is an onslaught on the essence of a woman, the thing that makes the female feminine and nurtures life.

For, as we know, the very first sound that all infants utter, regardless of   language and culture, is  ‘Mum’, which is derived from the Latin word ‘mamae’, which means ‘breast’. Like other cancers, breast cancer cells too spread to various parts of the body, usually the bones, brain, lungs or liver. Unsurprisingly, shock, horror, fear, disbelief, anxiety and depression are just some of the emotions that women experience on discovery of the dread disease. (Men are lucky—male breast cancer is rare.)  

South Mumbai college Prof. X (name withheld on request ) who was diagnosed in 2009, went through “shock and denial. I asked myself: Why me? Finally, I arrived at acceptance which was the sweetest stage of all.”

“I was very nervous” says Madhavi Joshi, now 47, who shared details about her  diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.  She had first got her uterus removed after detection of  fibroids in 2011. “On 10 July 2013, doctors found a small lump during my annual check-up in Nagpur where  I was residing at the time. We relocated to Navi Mumbai where the doctor said there was  no need for a test but I insisted. Eventually, a lumpectomy was done in 2013 by Dr Mehul Bhansali at  Jaslok Hospital which “advised counselling if required. Chemotherapy was very painful, I suffered hair loss but sab vapas aa gaya.” Upbeat and cheery, Joshi believes cancer is  “100 per cent curable if one has faith in God and strong  willpower. Family support is also necessary and above all, for atheists.”

Professor X concurs “Family support is the most important, especially during the first three or four days after chemo and then, after every cycle of chemo. A friend  who went through the journey before me said, ’Live life king-size. Live each day.’ ”

“I am happy I am the richest person on earth.  The secret of happiness is to be happy under all circumstances, a  legacy from my dad,” says Rati Dady Wadia,  retired Principal, Queen Mary School. “Faith in God and my family helped me cope—I was  not frightened at all when a lump showed in 2001. “ She had a lumpectomy done by Dr J J Vyas at the Bombay Hospital. A lump reappeared in 2014, which entailed a mastectomy  at the Breach Candy Hospital under by  Dr Vinay Deshmane with support from physician Farokh Udwadia. ”How their faces shone when they were around me. All my doctors have shining beautiful faces,” she says.

What causes breast cancer is really a mystery though doctors attribute it to lifestyle-related factors, like dietary habits, stress, irregular sleeping hours, late menopause, having children late in life, and  breast-feeding less.  A 2002 study in The Lancet medical journal of 150,000 women, concluded that for every year of breastfeeding, the risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3 per cent.  So, one can be strong and healthy and still get cancer. But a few are known to be hereditary.

Hollywood A-lister Angelina Jolie has been an inspiration for modern women with her brave announcement of her double mastectomy at age 39 to reduce the risk of her getting cancer. Her mother  Marcheline fought cancer for almost a decade before she died at 56. Which is exactly the age another Hollywood actor Julia Loius Dreyfuss was diagnosed.  Like our very own Lisa Ray, she completed her cancer treatment and returned to work “feeling good and feeling quite ready and delighted to focus on funny things as opposed to things that aren’t quite so funny.”

There are three main risk factors:  Being female—over 99% of new cases of breast cancer are in women.  Genes and  middle age—more than 80% of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50.  In other words, breast cancer is the principal form of cancer in women worldwide. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, there were over two million new cases in 2018.  India’s Health Ministry acknowledges it  is the leading cause of cancer related mortality in urban areas, having overtaken cervical cancer. Cancer researchers estimate that 1 in 22 urban women is likely to develop breast cancer during her lifetime and that around a quarter of cases are preventable or curable via  medical examinations, genetic screening, biopsies, ultrasound, surgery, radiation/hormonal therapy and chemotherapy. Alternative therapies also help. Vareeja Thakkar uses music therapy with cancer patients to motivate them, she also teaches them meditation and yoga exercises at  Jaslok Hospital which organised a special day, called  Rose Day for its patients last week.

Regrettably, people generally tend  to ignore symptoms like bloating, indigestion, back and  pelvic pain, or muscles spasms. Nine in ten 10 women survive breast cancer for five years or more. Sadly, India  has a low breast cancer survival rate: For every two women diagnosed with breast cancer, one woman dies of it. Doctors say ignorance and / or reluctance to self-examine means  early detection and treatment are rare, which results in a higher death toll.

In a video posted on Saturday, which this correspondent watched on TV,   37-year-old tennis star Serena Williams covers her bare breasts and sings The Divinyls' 1990 pop hit ‘I Touch Myself’ to promote self-checks during the ongoing Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In India, the disease is largely managed by general surgeons across the country, many of whom are members of the Association of Breast Surgeons of India (ABSI), an  advocacy group for surgeons who seek excellence in the care of patients and  promote education and  research in collaboration with similar associations worldwide. Maharashtra has two cancer treatment hospitals, one at Nagpur named Rashtra Sant Tukdoji (RST) Regional Cancer Hospital and the other in Mumbai, the renowned Tata Memorial Hospital at Parel, which is the country's leading cancer treatment facility and offers, for a nominal fee, a second opinion  service in 24 hours from its online facility at www.navya.careShort Takes

What causes breast cancer is really a mystery though doctors attribute it to lifestyle-related factors, like dietary habits, stress, irregular sleeping hours, late menopause, having children late in life, and  breast-feeding less.

A 2002 study in The Lancet medical journal of 150,000 women, concluded that for every year of breastfeeding, the risk of breast cancer decreased by 4.3 per cent.

Warning signs

Breast cancer occurs when certain cells in the breast become malignant and form a tumour. Look for lumps in the breasts, armpits or breast tail. Also, inverted nipples, blood stained discharge from the nipples and a change in texture of the skin.

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