STUDIES have shown that breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Jamaican women, and detecting the disease early can guarantee survival. But Sandra Samuels, president of Jamaica Reach to Recovery, says there needs to be a balance between the drive to get women screened and the availability of mammography machines across the island.
There is also a scarcity of expert specialist radiologists and radiographers for breast cancer, she pointed out.
Jamaica Reach to Recovery is the breast cancer arm of Jamaica Cancer Society which offers counselling and financial support for people battling breast cancer.
“We have an access problem. If we were to get everybody going out for mammograms, that maybe would be a challenge and a lot of people have to come to Kingston to get the mammograms done. Now, that is a serious problem when you’re having a campaign about early detection. You need to have more access in Jamaica,” Samuels pointed out.
Speaking at a special edition of the JN Thrive Together Life Class recently, the 23-year breast cancer survivor said that there are no mammography machines in some parishes, such as Trelawny, St Mary, and Portland, and one to three machines in the other parishes, except Kingston, which has about nine or 10.
She noted, however, that the Ministry of Health and Wellness is working on the issue and this year, a mammography machine was placed at Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) and one at Cornwall Regional Hospital in St James.
Besides the shortage of mammography machines, Samuels said there is also a lack of specialists who are trained to do the procedure.
“We have a shortage of radiologists and radiographers that can read mammograms. So, you find that KPH and Cornwall Regional and other places could do more, but the radiologists are working at different locations instead of being stationed at one place,” she explained.
She recommends more lobbying to improve the situation.
Regardless of the challenges, Samuels maintains that behaviour towards screening among women needs to be improved.
“If you put colon, cervical and uterine cancer diagnoses together, breast cancer diagnoses still, by far, surpasses them. One in 15 or seven per cent of Jamaican women are diagnosed with breast cancer and they are presenting late stage. What we are seeing for the month of October is, although there is a sea of pink — everybody knows about breast cancer, but they are not moving to get screened and that is a problem,” she warned.
Fear, Samuels said, remains a real factor, but if women want to survive, they must get screened because cancer is time-sensitive.
“When doc told me that I had breast cancer, I went in shock because in my estimation, I didn’t fall in the high-risk group. I didn’t have anybody in my family who had breast cancer. In my thinking I was not obese, or fall anywhere in any of the groups so how did I get this thing?” she related.
Given the indiscriminateness of breast cancer, she posited that the solution is for women to do regular breast self-examinations, preferably in the shower while soapy, so that the hand easily glides over the breast. They should get tested immediately once a lump, hump or bump is felt, or if there is any noticeable abnormality in the breast.
“The earlier, the easier [it is] to treat and the cheaper [it is] to treat and your chance at survival goes up to 90 plus per cent if caught early,” she said.
Referencing evidence presented by breast surgeon and breast surgical oncologist Dr Jason Copeland, Samuels noted that many women are presenting with late-stage breast cancer.
Pointing out that breast cancer has five stages — from zero-four — she noted that at the first two stages there is usually no spread and it’s the easiest to treat, which is why screening for early detection is encouraged.
It is usually recommended that women start screening at age 40 years because there is more density in the breast, but Samuels said once they are deemed high-risk, they should get screened earlier.
“We need to see people coming in at the very early stage, so you can survive and have your best chance at survival. Sometimes the mammogram can detect it when the person would not be able to feel it with a self-examination,” she said.
The Life Class formed part of the sixth annual instalment of the JN Group Power of Pink breast cancer awareness campaign, which is being executed under the theme, ‘Take the Brave Steps’.
The campaign is geared towards encouraging women to get their mammograms done and raising funds for cancer research and financial support for warriors.
The public can visit the JN Bank Half-Way-Tree branch in St Andrew each Friday in October to make a donation to the cause, or deposit money to JN Foundation savings account number 2094590587 online or in branch, ensuring that “JN Power of Pink” is placed in the description.
Jamaicans in the diaspora can also donate at JN Money locations in the Cayman Islands, United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
The funds will be turned over to Jamaica Cancer Society to assist with cancer research and women fighting breast cancer.