PINK OCTOBER; MY BREAST CANCER STORY
The stretcher squeals to a grinding halt and the glimmer of the ceiling light shimmers through my teary eyes. It is quite a surreal and uncomfortable situation. I feel queasy and very lethargic at the same time. The last thing I remember the doctor saying was “don’t worry Madam, you would be all right”, after which my world went pitch black.
I feel entranced and I’m struggling to wake up. This trance must have taken a large bit of me. Through it, I can hear the sound of footsteps diminish and intensify with distance. Moments later, I wake up to see a sea of faces staring reassuringly at me. I gradually come around and make out their faces to be my friends, my two sons, the youngest being 15 years and the oldest being 35 years.
I feel very blessed today because the doctors have averted what could have been a very devastating situation. According to them, I would have been in trouble if the cancer had spread from my breast to other parts of my body. This would have opened a Pandora’s Box of a potpourri of unpleasantness, which include spinal fractures, seizures, liver damage among other reasons. I chided myself at this moment- Thank God I came to the hospital rather early.
Like every Ghanaian who has the hospital as his/her pet-peeve, I did some extensive shopping at the herbalist’s, that I eventually grew green fingers- I began cultivating some in my backyard garden! Hmmm, even my extensive education did not make a difference. Well, every pedestrian Ghanaian would be inclined to do it as I did, for their advertisements were rather more of a bashing against the orthodox doctors than they spoke about their cures. They promised how applying some potion (whose name sounded like the evilest spell that ever existed) could shrink the lump I had found in my left breast. They discredited the mainstream doctors and said things like, “if you go there, they would cut your breast”. I kept downing vials of acrid potions totally oblivious of their consequences but experienced no improvement in my condition.
Fast forward, I found myself in one of the teaching hospitals after heeding a friend’s advice. I was told I had a constellation of factors that predisposed me developing breast cancer. In my case, it just seemed like a perfect mix of them- to begin with, I had a strong family history of gynaecological malignancies, a fancy term the doctor used, which simply means female cancers. I remember grandma Akosua lose her life to cervical cancer and Aunty Araba also succumb to ovarian cancer. Well, that had chased me too.
Also, aha! That sweet tooth I have always had- I just knew it had to be extracted. I simply loved delicious food and had a catholic taste for all that which sizzles and drips with grease! I could pass for a gourmet! I called them happiness served on a plate! I could binge on hamburgers and fries every single day of the week. With my clothes bursting at its seams and myself teeming with fat handles, I would simply sprawl my corpulent self on the swivel chair and munch the fried foods away, and down them with a glass of my favourite beer! I liked it at 5% on weekdays and 20% on Fridays. It provided the perfect torpor! Well, the doctor said my habits would have been riskier if I smoked.
To add insult to injury, I was preoccupied with globetrotting after having my first child, Kwesi that I had the second, Kwame after twenty years. In that intervening period, I had been on an extended regimen of oral contraceptive pills to avert any pregnancy and had even had more than five years of hormonal therapy in this regard. I had no idea that these, coupled with other factors like having a family history of breast cancer, having no children, not breastfeeding children, previous exposure to radiotherapy could predispose a person to developing breast cancer. Simply put, having a family member who had suffered some cancer, smoking, alcohol intake, eating fatty foods and obesity are risk factors for developing the disease. The others include having no children, experiencing early menarche and late menopause, use of oral contraceptive pills, use of hormonal therapy for more than five years, having a long birth interval, not breastfeeding and having a family history of breast cancer.
Fast forward, I came to the hospital and was diagnosed after a series of lab investigations were done. I joined a couple of women at the breast clinic where we were educated on how to perform the self-breast exam and detect breast changes which include lump(s) in the breast, breast skin changes, nipple discharge, pain the breast among others. I was scheduled for treatment and put on a cocktail of some agents, which shrunk the mass after which it was removed.
Save a neat scar, my breast is as intact as it used to be. I’m a happy person-, but I’m bothered, very bothered! The ward on which I am is a very familiar one just because of familiar faces. Four of the other women on the ward with me are acquaintances from the herbalists’. This would have been the most opportune moment to continue with the last bit of gossip but then…hmmm, they are in various grades of critical condition. The last woman in the corner keeps writhing and wincing in pain, which seems to be intractable. Ever since I arrived on the ward, I have never seen her out of the bed. I once heard through the grapevines that the cancerous cells had spread to her spine and eaten a bit of it, hence her immobility. I remember her very well. When I was just a newcomer at the herbalists’. She had been a patient there for the past three years. I knew her condition had been worsening but I did not expect it to be this dire.
Apparently, she had presented to the hospital very late, when the cancerous cells had spread to the other parts of her body. Essentially, her condition was incurable so the doctors could only put her on palliative care to lessen her pain, while she lived on borrowed time. One day, I saw her being wheeled away, with tears streaking down the eyes of her relatives. The doctors had discharged her to go home and get her house in order.
Today, I’m a product of my experience. I have begun a campaign to provide education on breast cancer for women as well as free screening for them. I recommend a monthly self-breast exam to my audience and advise them to look out for any of the breast changes and report to the nearest accredited Health facility for treatment. Also, I inform them about the importance of periodic clinical exams by a doctor. For women aged forty years and above, annual mammography, which is simply an X-ray of the breasts is recommended. Breast cancer is curable if detected early and treated properly.
Like many topics widely discussed, breast cancer has had many mythical associations. Some speculate that it is caused by antiperspirants, underwire brassieres or implants. That one is diagnosed with breast cancer doesn’t mean that one would necessarily lose her breast, as many treatment modalities exist.
October is the month set aside worldwide to raise awareness about breast cancer. Breast cancer is the commonest cancer among women in Ghana, with more than 2000 new cases being diagnosed each year and more than 1000 deaths yearly.
So as you fashionably step out in this pink month, have your boobs checked, share your story and remember that early detection and effective treatment saves lives.
Breast cancer is curable if detected early. Seek early treatment if you notice any breast changes. Thank you.
( This account, although fictional was culled from the writer’s experience while studying medicine in a teaching hospital in Ghana. )