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National Cancer Awareness Day: Here's What An Oncologist Wants You To Know

November 7 is observed as National Cancer Awareness to raise awareness about one of the leading causes of death globally. Here are some common myths around breast cancer one must be aware of.

National Cancer Awareness Day: Heres What An Oncologist Wants You To Know

A mutation in the BRCA gene can exacerbate the risk of developing hereditary breast cancer

This rise in breast cancer all over the world can be attributed to lifestyle choices such as sedentary living, alcohol or tobacco abuse, stress, increased oestrogen exposure due to use of contraceptive pills, delayed child birth etc. On the other hand, genetics also play a significant role. For instance, a mutation in the BRCA gene can exacerbate the risk of developing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. It's also reported that constant factors such as polluted air and water can be attributed to the rise of cancer in people.

Early detection is the key

Though extremely serious, it must be noted that breast cancer can be treated and swiftly bridged to remission if a patient has early detection. It is advised to start mammography screenings as indicated by guidelines, women aged between 45-54 every year and women aged 55 and older once in 2 years. Furthermore, self-examinations are also helpful in detecting superficial lumps or undulations. Early education and awareness is critical, especially since breast cancer when occurring in young women is fairly aggressive. Any unusual discharge or lumps must be checked out at once.

While there is no definitive method of preventing breast cancer, early detection provides the best chance of effective treatment. When detected early, tumors can be surgically removed to eliminate the chances of metastasis. This offers excellent chances of complete recovery and increased survival rates. Alternatively, a patient will be less reliant on chemotherapy drugs which can eliminate or reduce chemotherapy-induced toxic effects resulting in improved quality of life. Early detection will reduce a patient's financial stress; along with emotional and psychological trauma associated with chemotherapy treatment. Since late detection of breast cancer will require aggressive forms of treatment along with surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Up until a few decades ago, breast cancer was managed by mastectomy followed by several rounds of chemotherapy. Thanks to the technological and medical advancements that have opened a plethora of treatment options for these patients.

Myths busted!

In addition to a customized treatment plan for individual patients, there needs to be awareness about breast cancer, especially among young people who believe they're unlikely to develop this disease. Here are some other popular misconceptions-

Myth: If no one in the family has had cancer, that means you are risk-free

Only about 5-10% of all cancers are inherited or genetic. Majority of cancers (90-95%) are caused by DNA mutations that could develop over a person's life as a natural progression influenced by age, environmental factors (air pollution, cigarette smoke, tobacco) and encounters with carcinogens. It is advised to receive regular screenings and mammograms even if there's no suspected family history of cancer.

Myth: A cancer diagnosis is always fatal

Indeed, a cancer diagnosis used to be considered terminal. However, survivability rates today are higher than ever especially with early detection and appropriate treatment. With so much global investment in cancer research, certain variants of the disease are entirely curable, and most patients can live a long and healthy life once treated. Breast cancer patients for instance, have a 90% survival rate if detected in early stages (I and II).

Myth: One treatment suits all

We've come a very long way from having limited treatment options. Plans depend on stage of detection, size of lump, age, lifestyle, etc. Patients today can choose between full breast removal (mastectomy) or removal of only the malignant lump (breast conservation surgery). Radiation therapy could be applied depending on the type of surgery and lymph node involvement. Chemotherapy too could be entirely avoided.

In fact, cancer treatment is being customized based on molecular testing: mutations in cancer cells may help guide a patient's treatment. In the last few years, companies have been investing in the development of prognostic tests that can analyses the molecular make-up of a patient's cancer stage and estimate the probability of relapse. These tests are widely available today, even in India.

(Dr Rohan Khandelwal is Lead Consultant & Head, The Breast Cancer Centre at CK Birla Hospital)

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