We all know what breast cancer is and all of us knows someone that’s either survived it or has, sadly died from it. It’s a cancer that can be fought if caught in the early stages. Yet so many women, especially here in Thailand, die needlessly because of it every day.
Because they don’t have regular breast screening and are unaware of the importance of self examination. Often the cancer is detected when it’s too late.
Ten years ago this May, my dearest friend and neighbour from when I lived in the UK, died of cancer. She had previously had breast cancer, and had been given the all clear after a mastectomy. Two years prior to her death, it came back but this time in her hip bone. Cancer does that, it surprises you and frightens you, it comes back, the one thing we all hope never would.
Sarah’s story is not unique. Many women die all over the world, everyday of a cancer. Sometimes it’s due to having breast cancer. Sometimes it’s after they “recover” from breast cancer. What we all need to be is vigilant. We all need to check our breasts every month. And act on anything that doesn’t feel “right”. But many Thai women don’t. Hence the figures, that seven women die every day due to breast cancer. A figure given to me by Dr Tapanutt Likhitmaskul, a breast surgeon at Bangkok Hospital Pattaya.
I’ve been told that one of the highest rates of cancer in the country, is in the area between Laem Chabang and Rayong. Pattaya where I now live, is somewhere in between. I was astonished, yet why should I be?
This area is highly industrial, with many pollutants in the air and sea. We also have a high number of women “working”, in the tourist sector. So it could either be environmental or due to the sheer number of women in the location, pushing up the figures. The doctor agrees with me. There isn’t a firm study to suggest why. He feels the number of women suffering from breast cancer may also be because there is a slight increase in the women coming forward for breast screening and mammograms.
Historically Thai women have shied away from having mammograms and acting on any abnormalities they may find upon self examination, in fact many women are unaware of how to self examine. I spoke with Ms Wallapha Sawasdikool, an international marketing executive from Bangkok Hospital Pattaya, she informed me that this is due to a lack of education and awareness regarding breast cancer. The women have heard that the mammogram hurts and because of that they don’t want to go through it, therefore they don’t act on any abnormalities they may find.
It’s the role of her and members of her team, that have the responsibility of educating the community. They invite local women to meetings, in the City Hall and other community centres to educate the woman on the perils of breast cancer and the importance of self examination. They have a specific team that does this every month. This is largely due to the fact that year on year breast cancer rates are on the increase. Their message is that early detection can saves lives.
Their motto being “SAVE BREAST SAVE LIFE”. I don’t think they could be more direct!
Bangkok Hospital Pattaya prides itself on having the most up to date equipment in the Eastern seaboard in its dedicated breast centre which has been open for over a year. The centre has the latest 3D digital mammogram machines. Providing more clear and concise images of the breasts. Picking up even the smallest abnormalities.
I have attended this clinic for a breast screening myself. I did so last month coincidentally, before I even thought of writing this article. I was very impressed, I suffered little pain, the nurse was very kind and gentle, I felt comfortable and in control at all times. The mammogram itself was followed up by an ultrasound, and then by a consultation with Dr Tapanutt. The whole process was very thorough and I highly recommend it. It’s a far cry from the awful painful mammograms one has to endure back home through the NHS. So I can emphasise with the women that avoid having a mammogram here. But it is still important to have one.
The cost of the breast screening at this centre is high, too high for the average Thai to afford.
This was my question to Wallapha. She agreed and said thats why they are emphasising the importance of self examination. It’s a vicious circle, the women fear the pain inflicting machines in the government hospitals, therefore don’t go for their regular screenings, which aid in early
detection. This increases the number of untreatable breast cancer cases as it’s found too late.
Wallapha agrees the price has to come down and the women need to be more educated on the subject. The centre sees mainly foreign patients. They can afford it, and they can have treatment straight away, there are no waiting times for those that can pay.
Dr Tapanutt, tells me that the risk to Asian women is significantly lower than that to women in Europe/USA and Australia. But there, the women are aware and taught the risks of breast cancer and the importance of self examination.
Sadly something Thai women lack. He quoted
“the symptom of breast cancer is no symptom” and that is why self examination is so important. The lumps that cause concern don’t cause pain, and hence Thai women think nothing of them. Which he fails to understand.
As a result, the doctor has taken to the radio airwaves in a bid to promote breast cancer awareness. Every Wednesday afternoon from 5pm on City Radio, (emergency cases permitting), the doctor along with a DJ, host a question and answer radio show. In conjunction with a SMS campaign encouraging medical treatment if any abnormalities are found. Which he was very positive about and felt was working.
This is a simple yet effective way of getting the the message out there, in a not so serious way.
It’s fantastic that Bangkok Hospital Pattaya are helping to bring down the rates of breast cancer in my local area. I’m sure many other hospitals around Thailand are doing the same. It made me realise how very lucky we are in the west, medical treatment and education is there all around us. This is a cancer that can be fought. If caught early enough.
I wish the team at BHP all the luck In world at spreading awareness. So please be vigilant and spread the word. And remember ” the symptom of breast cancer is no symptom”
SAVE BREAST SAVE LIFE
Jess Thakkar was born in the UK to parents of Indian, East African origin. She followed her husband to Thailand in 2010. She is the president of Rayong Pattaya Ladies Circle, an expat women’s group based in Pattaya.