“Why me? What next?” were the questions that troubled Radhika Santhanakrishnan of Chennai in
February 2009, after a biopsy revealed a malignant tumour in her left breast. “The news was hard,” she recalls. “But I summoned an inner strength I never knew I possessed and didn’t waste my time crying.”
Luckily for her, Radhika’s tumour was detected early because she had been taking annual mammograms. The tumour could be cut away cleanly, and she didn’t have to lose her breast. Today, after radiation treatment and a gruelling course of chemotherapy, 56-year-old Radhika is in perfect health.
In 2008, Mumbai pharmacist Kaveeta Matkar felt a coin-sized lump in her breast and a persistent pain in the adjoining armpit. A biopsy showed that the lump was cancerous. “I was terrified about losing my breast,” says Kaveeta, “although the surgeon assured me that he would try his best to save it.” Following surgery, as she regained consciousness, Kaveeta was overjoyed to find her breast intact.
In her case too, the tumour had not spread and mastectomy—a surgical removal of the breast—was avoided. Had it been a decade ago, it might have been a different story.
As always, the treatment of breast cancer depends on the stage at which it is detected and the condition of each patient. Indeed, earlier, in a vast majority of cases, mastectomy was the only option. Today, in up to some 60 percent of patients, surgeons remove only the tumour with a surrounding bit, no more than a centimetre, of normal tissue. This is called “breast conservation surgery,” and patients like Radhika and Kaveeta are usually given radiation and chemotherapy after the operation to reduce any chances of the cancer coming back.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among urban Indian women. In rural India, cervical cancer is more prevalent, but even there breast cancer takes a close second place. “Screening early can definitely help reduce the impact of the disease,” says Dr Sumeet Shah, a Mumbai-based consultant surgical oncologist, who also manages the website BreastCancerIndia.net, where he offers the latest information on the disease. “Unfortunately, there is no screening for breast cancer done on a national scale although it’s high time we had it.”
Fatal Genes and Younger Women
While breast cancer rarely affects women under 30, those with a family history are more at risk. When Sheenam Raj,* supervisor at a bank, was detected with breast cancer at 27, it was shockingly unexpected. She’d been recently married and had a baby by that time. “When the doctor gave us the diagnosis, I couldn’t compose myself,” says her husband Raj. “I had to leave the room. But, in hindsight, I feel we should have taken preventive measures earlier, especially since Sheenam’s mother died of cancer of the uterus when she was 60.”
“A family history of any kind of cancer can predispose you to cancer,” says Dr Navin Bhambhani, consultant cancer surgeon at Jupiter Hospitals, Mumbai. “The risk of breast cancer further increases if a blood relative has breast or ovarian cancer. And if three generations of family members have breast cancer, you stand a chance to contract the disease at a much earlier age.”
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