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Checking Your Breasts Will Make A Difference –

Checking your breasts regularly will make a difference

Early detection is key when it comes to surviving breast cancer. Photo:


Early detection is everything when it comes to breast cancer.

Yet, even though breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Malaysia (one in 30 Malaysian women will be diagnosed in their lifetime), the majority of women do not routinely check their breasts for abnormalities or go for annual screenings after the age of 40.

Although the lack of access to screening facilities in rural areas contributes to this problem, National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) president Dr Saunthari Somasundaram feels that the bigger issue is women’s indifference towards their breast health.

“Early detection in so important and I can’t stress this enough. The earlier you catch it, the better the outcome, not just in the number of years you will live but also the quality of life you will enjoy. All the research shows that late stage breast cancer exponentially increases the mortality rate.

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“The incidence of cancer in Malaysia is not as high as countries like Australia or the United States (one in eight) but our survival rate is much lower (49% compared to 89% in Australia). What this means is that though we have fewer women with breast cancer, we have more deaths. The reason? Most women are diagnosed at a later stage,” says Dr Saunthari.

The size of the tumour and how far it has spread are the most important factors determining the outcome for the patient. The goal is to catch the cancer early.

“When breast cancer is detected early (stage one), the survival rate is close to 90%. At this stage, the cancer is contained in the breast and hasn’t spread to the lymphatic or vascular system.

“It is easier to treat at this stage. At stage two, the survival rate already drops to about 70%. And at stage three and four, the outcomes are even less positive and treatment is more complicated,” Dr Saunthari emphasises.

In Malaysia, about 43% of newly diagnosed breast cancer cases are already at the late stages (stage three and four). Only 10% of breast cancers are preventable and unlike some other types of cancer, there isn’t one single test that can clear a woman for breast cancer for the rest of her life. Staying vigilant is the only way to get to the disease early.

Doing breast self-exams, she stresses, is about taking responsibility and ownership of our bodies.

“We need to be more breast aware and take charge of our own health and our bodies. Most women would immediately recognise any small change on our face because we look at our face all the time. Our face and how we look is very important to us. Why don’t we do the same with our breasts?

“If we look at our breasts and feel them regularly, we would most likely be able to detect changes and get checked,” says Dr Saunthari, who is also the medical advisor to NCSM.

Although accessibility to screening and diagnosis is an issue in rural areas, the real issue is women not paying enough attention to their breast health, says Dr Saunthari.

According to the Health Ministry’s National Health and Morbidity Survey (2015 to 2018), only 6.6% of adults aged 18 and above have an “adequate” level of health literacy.

A 2014 study by Universiti Putra Malaysia researchers further revealed that 70.5% of respondents (who were female undergraduates) did not perform regular breast self examinations (BSE), nor did they know how to. Their knowledge of breast cancer and BSE was also inadequate.

This, says Dr Saunthari, is the issue to tackle.

“Accessibility is definitely something the health ministry needs to address. We see some progress in urban areas where more women are screening earlier. But in rural areas, where you don’t have such easy accessibility to mammograms and diagnosis, we aren’t seeing a real shift.

“But, even though there have been programmes to improve accessibility in rural areas – NCSM, in partnership with Etiqa insurance and Takaful offers 5000 free mammograms in rural areas annually and the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) has their screening programmes too – we are simply not seeing enough response from women.

“We need to ask ourselves why we are not reaching these women? Clearly, it is not enough to talk about this only when Pink October comes around. We need to talk about this all the time,” she says.

Breast cancer is a malignant or cancerous growth that begins in the tissues of the breast.

Improved health literacy is also key in dispelling the stigma around the disease as well as misconceptions which cause many to rely exclusively on traditional medicine rather than seek treatment.

The onus, says Dr Saunthari, is on the health system: physicians, nurses, public health practitioners need to keep pushing the message of early detection to women so that they think about breast health as part of their general health.

“We cannot expect women to be proactive after a once-a-year campaign. The health service has to be proactive. If a patient comes in for the common cold or flu, they have their blood pressure and pulse checked. It’s routine. We should make this routine too – even if a woman doesn’t come to a physician about her breast health, our physicians or nurses should ask them if they’ve done their routine checks.

“Or if they know how to do a breast self exam. If not, we need to urge them to do so. If they are reminded regularly, chances are they will get it done. And for women in rural areas, this might be the best way to make sure they check or are checked,” says Dr Saunthari.

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