Early diagnosis of cancer saves lives

For decades now, cancer care for women in India has focused on the ones with the highest incidence such as — cancer of breast, cervix, head and neck and the oesophagus.

This situation has changed over the last few years. For example, the incidence of cervical cancer, which once was one of the leading cancers in women in the country, has seen a drop in tier I, II and III cities as well as in rural areas. This is because, a growing number of women and men practise better hygiene and sanitation today. Parallel to this, is the significant rise in breast cancer incidence, because of lifestyle changes and dietary habits in women.

The overall lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating habits have together contributed to an increase in the prevalence of obesity, and as a consequence, we see a higher incidence of breast cancer today – both globally and in India.

Unlike most countries in the West, India does not have a cancer registry. Although our disease incidence numbers are not as high as our western counterparts, it is clear that they are soon going to catch up, as we live longer and our lifestyle changes.

For example, take breast cancer statistics. In Holland, one in every seven women gets diagnosed with breast cancer; in the US, it is one in every nine women. In India, recent estimates reveal that breast cancer affects close to one in every 13 women.

Year on year, experts have stressed on the need for early detection of cancer, and fortunately, this has led to a heightened awareness of the issue.

This changing dynamic is due to the fact that more and more women are taking charge of their health, driven by an increase in awareness about screening for cancer to detect the disease early enough. This in turn has translated to reduced fear surrounding the disease and improvements in cancer treatment outcomes.

Historically, one of our biggest challenges has been to persuade women to come forward to screen for the disease, because of which we have not been able to provide quality cancer care to our women patients. A well acknowledged reason for hesitation in coming forward is that women associate discomfort with the process of diagnosis and treatment of breast and cervical cancers.

They perceive mammography examinations and pap smear screenings as uncomfortable.  Moreover, low literacy rates among patients further compound this problem acting as an impediment to early cancer detection and ultimately affecting overall cancer treatment outcomes.

A number of private health institutions have been involved in setting up various models across the country to take cancer care to women and encourage early screening, diagnosis and treatment. Today, through an increasing number of cancer awareness initiatives by both the public and private sector, we are witnessing a rise in the number of women who come forward for pap smears and breast screening exams.

Government support

For this reason, it is crucial to have the support and participation of government institutions, private organisations and voluntary organisers and groups, to encourage women to take charge of their health and opt for regular screening tests to catch the disease in its early stages.

I am aware that these initiatives cannot prevent cancer, but they do encourage women to overcome their inhibitions and get screened. This enables us to diagnose the cancer at an early stage and provide treatment that is more effective, and patient outcomes more desirable.  I take the opportunity to reiterate that every woman can and must take charge of her own health, understand the disease and consult doctors for treatment and if required, change their lifestyles.

Cancer today is a treatable and manageable condition in women. And, I belive that if the above-mentioned measures are encouraged and adopted on a national scale, patients can go on to lead long, healthier and productive lives.

(The writer is Chairman and CEO, HealthCare Global Enterprises Ltd)

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