Breast cancer is the country’s third most common form of cancer and every October, Botswana joins the rest of the world in various geared advocacy and awareness campaigns. Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE reports on some of this year’s activities
For many, a cancer diagnosis is as good as a death sentence. People live with symptoms and suspicions, but many are reluctant to test because they fear the outcome. Unfortunately, this is one disease where ignorance is not bliss, but fortunately, a breast cancer diagnosis is no longer certain death.
Breast cancer survivor, Malebogo Bakwena knows this first hand. She describes herself as living proof that if patients follow doctor’s orders they can survive the disease. Bakwena was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2010 after years of suspecting she had a problem.
“I have had lumps in my breasts as far back as 1998. I took long to have them checked out, as I was worried that they might be cancerous.
“I did not have the courage to have them checked out as I was only thinking about death. I could not even talk to friends or family about the lumps or share my worry, until one day I couldn’t take it any longer,” she says.
Bakwena, finally opened up and found support from her friends, family and medical practitioners. This helped her relax and it was explained that not all lumps are cancerous. However, her lumps were found to be cancerous and after extensive treatment and check-ups, she was declared cancer-free after a few years.
For Bakwena, it is critical that people take responsibility for their own health.
“Let’s befriend our breasts. Let’s take heed of what the Health Ministry teaches us about certain health conditions, among them cancer. Over the radio several times, I have heard health officials encouraging us to inspect our breasts for lumps and other abnormalities like discharge on the nipples. This is not just talk to entertain listeners.”
Cancer Association Botswana (CAB) administration secretary, Pogiso Kgaile explains that breast cancer starts in the cells of the breast and is curable if diagnosed and treated early.
Even though men can also have breast cancer, studies have shown that women test for breast cancer in high numbers compared to their male counterparts.
“In Botswana, karposi sarcoma cancer, which is related to HIV is the most common cancer found in the country followed by cervical cancer and then breast cancer. Although the precise causes of breast cancer are unclear, we know the main risk factors.
“Curiously, most women considered at high risk for breast cancer do not get it, while many with no known risk factors do develop breast cancer. Among the most significant factors are advancing age and a family history of breast cancer,” Kgaile explains.
Breast cancer is also associated with lifestyle diseases and can be influenced by the kind of food people eat. According to Kgaile, even though breast cancer is not common among women younger than 40 years, those in this age group need to keep checking their breasts for any odd changes and report to the nearest health facility should they spot any abnormalities.
Data from the public
A Princess Marina Hospital oncologist, Tlotlo Ralefala said worldwide 1.6 million cases of breast cancer were recorded in 2012 and from those, half of the patients died. Locally, most patients seek medical help when the cancer is advanced.
“We are not sure if this is caused by lack of knowledge about the sickness or a fear of being stigmatised.
“Some think having cancer is the end of life. Everyone knows someone who has died of cancer and as a result, people are afraid because they have seen the effects of chemo and other cancer treatments.
“They are afraid to get medical help and that is why we are raising awareness on breast cancer,” she explains.
According to Ralefala, every treatment is individualised and securing early treatment enhances the prognosis for many patients.
“When you come for treatment when your breast cancer is in the early stage, we just take off the lump, but when the cancer is advanced we are forced to take off the whole breast. Sometimes we take off the breast when a patient’s family has cancer history or when the patient decides to remove it,” she said.
Treatment varies from surgery, chemo, radiotherapy and tablets that can be taken for five to 10 years. Drivers of breast cancer include poor diets, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and drug use.
For Breast Cancer Month, which began on October 1, activities are in full swing to bring these figures down, through awareness and encouraging women and men to test.
CAB in collaboration of the Ministry of Health and Wellness and Princess Marina Hospital last week held a Breast Cancer commemoration themed, Itse Mabele A Gago at the hospital featuring a walk, speeches and breast examinations.
On October 21, CAB will team up with Zumba For Cancer in Gaborone, where an annual fundraising activity will be conducted at Thornhill Primary School from 9am.
The increasingly popular Stiletto Walk will be held on October 28 in Gaborone from Rail Park Mall starting at 6.30am. CAB and its partners will hold the walk under the theme ‘Big or Small, Save ‘Em All’. Guest walker and speaker will be specially elected MP, Bogolo Kenewendo.
The CAB relies on donor funding and is taking care of cancer patients who live far from Gaborone, but need to receive their chemotherapy. The NGOs premises in Extension 12 feature accommodation for a limited number of patients, who receive counselling and treatment through CAB and related organisations.
“During the month, we will also be raising breast cancer awareness at companies, schools and government organisations where we will teach them how to check for lumps in their breasts. It is important for people to check for lumps in their breasts every month,” Kgaile says.