With growing number of breast cancer cases in India, awareness and early detection is key. Breastcancerindia.net is an online initiative by Oncologist Dr Sumeet Shah that looks at addressing these issues. Dr Shah also runs his own cancer treatment hospital in Mumbai and speaks to moneycontrol.com on various ways of tackling the breast cancer menace.
Below are the excerpts of his interview with moneycontrol.com.
Q: What is the focus of Breastcancerindia.net?
A: The focus of breastcancerindia.net is to project correct information about breast cancer to the common man in India. There are multiple reasons for it:
- Many women suffering from breast cancer are treated by non oncologists. Their approach is incorrect, their treatments are incorrect and most of the non oncologists are just not up to date with the present treatment protocols; and all of this definitely impacts the patient's survival. So if someone gets to read what is correct and what is not, it might help them select a proper doctor.
- Many women still come with fairly big lumps. After a regular feedback from all my patients, I have realized that most women are really not aware of symptoms of breast cancer. Hence, they lose two to three months by the time they reach the doctor. Some of them do report to a doctor on time (their family physician or their gynecologist), but not infrequently, it is these doctors who also do not suspect a cancer and give medicines and the patient loses a few months again, till they reach the right doctor. Please note, that cancer rises exponentially (I will explain this), and waiting for even a few months may decrease the patient's survival by 5 years!!! So if a lady is aware about the symptoms of breast caner, she is more likely to report early.
- Indians have a lot of faith in alternate treatment. And many of them detect the tumours early, but lose time in these alternate treatments. There is absolutely no role of alternate therapies in breast cancer.
- There is not a single Indian site, giving official statistics on breast cancer in India. This is the need of the hour, to understand the gravity of situation, and in next ten years, breast cancer is going to be far ahead of all other cancers. So I wanted to portray the official and correct statistics, which was another reason for the site
- One thing which bugs me real badly is removal of the breast. Almost all surgeons, and unfortunately, many older oncologists convince a patient to remove breast (for breast cancer). This is not so!! In more than 70 percent patients, we can easily conserve the breast. This is one important message which I try to pass on through my site.
- Finally, many breast cancer patients or their relatives do not have moral or psychological support, and this eats them away from inside. Hence we also started an online discussion board for Indian breast cancer patients, which is the first of its kind for India- http://healthunlocked.com/breastcancerindia. We have a significant number of members from all over India, patients and relatives alike and others as well, and regularly, questions related to treatment and support are put up, and everyone helps each other.
Q: How do you tackle the myths surrounding breast cancer and reach out to people with correct data and a practical approach?
A: This is a very difficult situation, as Indians, traditionally, do not rationale anything; be it festivals, be it cricketers, be it icons, be it film stars, be it anything. We don't think! To tackle the myths surrounding breast cancer, the foremost one would need is an audience with a group of women. I have my own various power point presentations on breast cancer, which I perform regularly for various groups - like BPOs, School teachers, college students, societies, companies (PEP) etc.
Wherever I get a sizeable audience of more than 50 or 100, I do these presentations, educating them of breast cancer, what is cancer, how does it occur, how to detect it early, how many famous women have fought it, and such questions. Apart from this, the largest audience one can get is the web, of course; and social networks. I use Facebook to my advantage, for the same purpose. Since 1st October, 2013, I have been putting up one poster on early detection on breast cancer with a message, every alternate day, and these are regularly shared by people and friends alike, so more and more people see it and learn the correct thing and understand.
Also, an important mention of my patients and friends, some of my patients (between 30 and 40 years age group) are quite enthusiastic and sometimes accompany me for power-point presentations to larger audience. They share their experience there, tell them how they caught it early, and how they are absolutely fine now.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing breast cancer treatment in India?
A: The biggest challenges are:
- Early detection. Even today, I am used to seeing patients come for the first time, with stage 3 or 4 breast cancer. Getting women come early needs awareness. So the challenge is to reach out to the masses and educate them about breast cancer
- Selection of correct doctor. It is extremely essential for the treatment to be correct and appropriate; and it goes without saying that breast cancer should be treated only by an Oncologist and NOT by General Surgeons, Gynecologists. This will happen, if people are educated to select their doctors correctly.
- Monetary support. Cancer treatment is very costly and a majority of patients face financial difficulties. This can be turned around be educating them for insurance, and for those already suffering, there are lots of NGO's who do offer financial assistance, but most people do not know where or whom to approach.
- Support - Moral, psychological, familial - all kinds of support. We need to hold the hand of those women suffering from breast cancer, build a positive attitude, help them through treatment. The support of the family is most important. I still come across women who have been left behind by their husbands after detection of breast cancer and similar such situations.
- And finally, we need at least one cancer centre in all small cities in India, and multiple of them in larger cities. Presently, cancer centers are more concentrated in cities.
Q: Can early detection emerge as a key positive factor and how can one get across to more women in order to recognize symptoms?
A: Yes, early detection can emerge as a key positive factor. Early detection will:
- Drastically improve survival
- Increase chances that the breast be preserved
- Decrease treatment associated problems. Cancers smaller than 1 cm and not spread to arm pit may not need chemotherapy; which will be a major boost, as most side effects are during chemotherapy.
- imbibe a positive attitude
As for how does one get across to women, I guess, it will only be through a proper medium. Be it power-point presentations educating them, or be it web based site, be in social networking sites. I believe, spreading awareness through social networking sites will be very helpful, as today, significant numbers of women in India have access to internet, and many of them are quite active in social networking. Apart from this, of course, print and television media play a role. There are many more ways out, if we sit and think.
Read more on cancer:
The cruel economics of cancer care
India and the fight against cancer
How affordable technology can abolish cancer
Early diagnosis is economically viable and life-saving