My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. She was in her mid 40s! Prior to this, we had no knowledge of any family member with breast cancer. It was a big shock. She had surgery done (mastectomy) in South Africa and chemotherapy in New York, as my Dad was working in NYC at the time. I was in college in Washington DC so when I eventually saw my mum in New York, I was confused. She looked amazing. Her hair was thicker and longer than usual. I initially thought it was a wig. She thinks her hair may have even grown during chemo. We laugh about that. She is approaching almost 20 years of being a breast cancer survivor and has spent the last 15 years or so raising awareness on breast cancer in Ghana. Today is the start of pink October – breast cancer awareness month. The idea of this blog is share a little about what I’ve learned from my mum about the status of breast cancer in Ghana and to promote general awareness particularly among black women.
The struggle of the breast cancer stigma is very real. In Ghana and probably throughout the continent, the word ‘cancer’ evokes fear and this makes it difficult for people to discuss the subject. My mum consistently finds that many women in Ghana are terrified of the stigma attached to the illness and some even attribute cancer to evil spirits, thus preventing them from accessing health care. Many patients would rather spend time in prayer camps or seeking traditional remedies than medical treatment. My mum knows of countless stories about women refusing to have a mastectomy (cutting of a breast or both breasts) because of the implications for their marriage or how they would feel about their femininity. And they have died as a result.
We all know that early detection saves lives, but this cannot be emphasised enough. Mortality rates from breast cancer in Ghana, are largely due to patients accessing heathcare at a very late stage when the cancer has spread everywhere. I have been having my annual mammograms since I turned 30 due to my elevated risk. But this is far from adequate. Regular self-check is key. In fact, I’ve read that about 80% of breast cancers are not discovered by mammograms; they are discovered by women themselves. Knowing the landscape of your body and noticing slight changes are important.
Black women have a higher mortality rate from breast cancer even though they have a lower risk of a breast cancer diagnosis compared to white women. Black women tend to get a more aggressive type of cancer compared to white women. This cancer, known as triple negative cancer, is often resistant to treatment and affects younger women. The high mortality rate is also explained by the fact that Black women start treatment when the cancer is more advanced. Resources and access to medical treatment (socio-economic factors) inevitably play a part. This again, reinforces the importance of regular self-checks.
I am so grateful for the work my mum (through the reach for recovery network) and others around the world do to promote breast cancer awareness. Perhaps this blog will remind someone to go schedule their mammogram first thing on Monday morning. Perhaps it will remind someone to do a self-check right now. Let’s all be vigilant and beat this evil vicious disease.
Peace and love!
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