Healthy Living examines breast cancer options
Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday in celebration of motherhood. But the entire month of May is observed as Cancer Awareness Month in Belize. In the United States, it is believed that about one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Closer to home, a cancer registry is being developed to get accurate statistics on the number of women affected by the life threatening condition. But what are the breast cancer screening options in Belize? Healthy Living has the answer.
Marleni Cuellar, Reporting
We may not know the exact number of women who have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer in Belize. But every Belizean has heard their fair share of stories of women battling and overcoming cancer.
But what are the options available for women in Belize if they suspect they have breast cancer? We asked General surgeon, Dr Phillip Burgess to walk us through the available options for Belizean women. The first phase is when a woman suspects there is a problem usually by finding a lump.
Dr. Phillip Burgess
“We’re not only talking about lumps but any abnormality that takes place in your breast. We preach breast awareness so you regularly examine your breast both by feeling and looking in a mirror. If there is the detection o f a lump, if you feel a lump. If you see a puckering, or a dimple or a sink in your breast, If the nipple that use to be pushing out is now pushing in, if there is a discharge from the nipple, especially if its bloody, if there is any scaling or any rash, whether it is on the breast itself, those are things to be worried about.”
These abnormalities as well as persistent lump in the armpit are all reasons to see your doctor immediately. The doctor would begin the process by gathering medical history and an examination. This will determine if there is need for further investigation.
A mammogram is the most common screening method for breast cancer and is normally prescribed for women over the age of 40. However, an ultrasound or breast MRI may also recommended for breast cancer screening.
Dr. Phillip Burgess
“Older patients the mammogram is quite accurate, the mammogram is better than an ultra sound, where as for younger patients, the ultrasound is better. However, it varies because sometimes we’d recommend that you’d have both done. Or older than the age of 30 for example we do a mammogram and sometimes follow it with an ultrasound. If you’re younger then sometimes an ultrasound by itself is good enough.”
Of the three screening methods, both mammograms and ultrasounds can be done in Belize. Once a lump is detected; the next step is to find out if it is cancerous. That is done through a biopsy which is done by surgeons like Dr Burgess.
Dr. Phillip Burgess
“Once a lump is detected the only way to tell that that lump is not cancer is to do a biopsy. A biopsy can be done in multiple different ways. There is a needle biopsy where we use a small needle and take a biopsy of a lump. That can either be done under the guidance of an ultrasound or without. That is usually more appropriate for cysts, fluid filled lumps. The other option is a core needle biopsy where we use a slightly bigger needle and we take an actual piece of tissue which is more used with solid lumps and we send that piece of tissue of to the lab. The next step is the open surgical biopsy; it is the most accurate type because you send the entire lump to test but you have to have surgery you have to either be put to sleep or under local anesthesia in the operating theatre and have the lump removed.”
“How often are the lumps cancerous?”
“Only about twenty percent of biopsies will come back with some form of cancer. Whether pre cancerous lesions or cancer itself. So the vast majority, eighty percent of biopsies are negative. Which is reassuring you don’t have to think that once the doctor recommends that you have a biopsy “Oh my gosh, I have cancer!” So that’s not correct.”
All forms of biopsies can be done in Belize. Dr Burgess stresses that it is important that if a woman detects a lump; she goes through the proper investigation to find out if it is cancerous.
“Once it’s been confirmed your management is prescribed by a surgeon or a surgical oncologist. The various arms of treatment are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy. And everybody doesn’t have to take all four arms of treatment but it depends on what your stage is. One of the biggest misconceptions has been that the patients have some—there’s a stigma attached to it; it is believed, or they believed that they have done something wrong but there seems to be some shame. But another problem is that the problem of privacy, patients want to keep it private but it’s difficult and people talk about it a lot. That person has cancer and that causes people to shy away from medical care and some people shy away from getting treatment at all.”
Treatment for all curable stages of breast cancer must include surgery. The surgery, chemotherapy and hormonal therapy can be done in Belize; radiation therapy isn’t. Despite the stigma, all women are at risk for breast cancer; unfortunately, there is no way to prevent it. You can, however, reduce the risk factors by a healthy diet, regular exercise and a reduction in alcohol intake. Being knowledgeable to screening and treatment options is also imperative.Email This Story