Breast cancer is most often found in women, but men can get it too. It is therefore something worth paying attention to as well by men.
Ebunola Anozie is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Care Organization Public Enlightenment (C.O.P.E), a non-governmental, non-profit organization established in 1995 as breast cancer resource service provider for students, women, breast cancer survivours and care givers.
In this exclusive interview with NewsClick Nigeria, she extensively dissected all that has to do with the cancer including the possibility and cases of men having it.
Can we meet you ma?
My name is Ebunola Anozie, CEO of C.O.P.E, Care Organization public enlightenment; it’s a non-governmental, nonprofit making organization. We started in 1995 as a breast cancer resource service provider for students, women, breast cancer survivors and care givers as well. And our aim is to make sure that women have access to breast screening, everything that has to do with the breasts and it is accessible and affordable as well. And as a member of Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), we make sure that we follow the theme that we normally use. This year, we have a different theme and we are trying to follow it.
What exactly are the causes of breast cancer?
Nobody really knows the cause of breast cancer. You see people going to say they are trying to find out what exactly is causing the cell to grow and multiply out of control for no useful purpose. We haven’t been able to detect. At times, normally in the body, cells grow and die. We use them, they fade off and die and then new ones come up. But when a cell decides to grow and multiply, for no useful purpose that is when you have cancer. (And cancer can affect any parts of the body except the hair, the cheeks and the knee).
We should also realize that the cause of breast cancer, like I said, have predisposing factors. When I say predisposing factors, I mean there is no one cause. I am talking about being a woman is something you cannot change. Being a woman and getting older. It’s a predisposing factor. Then a family history can cause it. It could be genetic. That also happens. That’s why we always advise those who have it in the family to always do regular screening and then have mammogram when they get to the age of 40, so that if there is anything there, the earlier they find out the better.
And then lack of exercise can expose one to it. Then there is exposure to radiation. You will find out that even those who work in the hospital and they deal with active rays, they protect themselves from rays. There is a way they do it. So if you’re exposed to radiation it can also affect you. Then some people who take contraceptive medication, we know that one should prevent unwanted pregnancy. If you’re taking oral contraceptives, its best for you to change it or stop it for a while and then you can start something else. There are times some of these drugs can affect one. Then the reproductive history of a woman as well can expose one to breast cancer. So all these things come to play, but all in all, like I always say, the earlier you start doing your examination, the better for you.
What are the myths, signs and symptoms of breast cancer?
Some people have said that sucking on the breasts can cause cancer. All these things are not true. But like I said earlier, when a cell grows and multiply for no useful purpose, that is when you have cancer and it can be in any part of the body.
As for breast cancer, the symptoms are quite important for one to know. If you have a lump in the breast or underarm, it is important that you go and have it screened. That is why we always emphasize on breast self-examination. Breast self-examination should be done a week after menstruation. So we have posters that we give to women who come to attend. It is not every time that you come to attend that you get ultrasound scan done.
If you’re a woman and you’re menstruating, a week after your menstruation, when you are doing your breast self-examination, there are certain things that you are looking out for. You are not just touching your breasts. You are looking for a lump in the breasts or in the underarm. You are looking for tingling or irritation of the skin. Sometimes, the skin might look like an orange peel. So you should take note of things that are unusual happening. And then if you find out that your nipple is receding, it’s puckered, it’s going in instead of coming out, it’s a sign as well.
Then if one breast is unusually bigger than the other, that’s another sign. You know that naturally one sight of the body is slightly bigger than the other. Just like the shoes, most people their left leg is slightly bigger than the right. If you notice that one breast is getting bigger than the other and it is noticeable, then please you have to go and see the doctor. And then if your breast is becoming red and you feel uncomfortable, then you should see your doctor. We also have the one where you inspect your nipple and you have odd color or bloody discharge, one you notice that please, ensure that you go and see the doctor. And speaking of swelling in the breast area, it is important as well for you to take note of. And if you have any painful sensation, for your health sake, have it checked.
So those are the things I will say are authentic for you to check when you are doing your breast self-examination or ultrasound scan. Ultra sound scan is equally important. And basically, we tell women who are over 40 to please have their mammogram done. Ultrasound scan can be done by anybody of any age. But when it comes to mammogram, we advise that mammogram should be done when you are over 40, and mammogram should not be done frequently because if you do it often, it can also trigger a cell to act anomaly. But those who have it in their family genes, we advise that they start mammogram earlier than 40. And if you are not comfortable, you feel that mammogram is not bringing out what you want, then you should go for MRI which is Magnetic Resonance Imaging. That will give you a better picture of what is happening in the breasts. So whatever it is, early detection is important. Screening to detect it early is what we always preach.
Does having breast cancer mean death sentence?
That is not true. I have been running this organization for 27 years now and I actually have women who are breast cancer survivors. Many of them are 18 years, 17 years after breast cancer. We have some that we have lost. What we are saying in essence is, when you catch it early and it is not invasive, it is evasive, meaning that it has not spread. You don’t even need to cut off your breast. They can just go with that part that the cancer is and you can still keep your breast, which means that probably it is in stage one or two. That is why we always say please, breast cancer is not a death sentence. People have survived it. I have almost 39 people or so who come here every third day of the month for their meeting. We have the meeting once a month and they are active women, they are mothers, they are sisters. Some of them are grandmothers and they have had breast cancer. And they are living, they are still alive. So don’t let anybody tell you that breast cancer is a death sentence. It’s a death sentence if you leave it to linger until it gets to a bad stage. Then you will know that there is no longer any remedy for this because it has actually spread to other organs of the body. Then, the only thing they will do is to just give one palliative care. Palliative care is just to make sure that the person doesn’t feel any pain until they breathe their last breathe.
Is it possible to get breast cancer if there is no history of it in the family?
To be candid, most people who have breast cancer do not have it in their family. So they always wonder that where did I get this from? My grandmother, my mother didn’t have it, nobody has had it in the family. It could happen to anybody. It’s just a cell going haywire without any cause and it might just decide to misbehave. It’s not a matter of in the family.
Can yearly checkup detect breast cancer?
Oh yes! Fantastic! You have to have a yearly checkup because the earlier you detect it, the better. It’s even going to be cheaper for you. When it is detected early, all the expensive drugs, you find out, you won’t spend as much as people who detected it late. That is why we say early detection can save your life and your breast. When you detect it early you don’t have to cut off your breast. Like I told you, I have women who are breast cancer survivors. Once you detect it early, the doctors attend to you early, you have your surgery, your chemotherapy, your radiotherapy. And we should also realize one important thing. Please, treating breast cancer is an individual approach. The treatment patient A will get is different from what patient B will get. It depends on the presentation of the cancer and the way your body is made up because we are not all the same. There are some people who have stage 2 cancer and within months it might spread whereas in some other people, stage 2 cancer might just be docile. It’s not aggressive because you know that when you find a lump, it is either benign or malignant. If it is benign then it is, if it is malignant then it is cancer. So it is regular for you to check. That is why I said a week after your menstruation, check. And for those who are not menstruating anymore, they should pick a special date that they can always check. They can pick their birthday. If you are born on the 4th of January, on the 4th of every month, check your breasts.
Can men have breast cancer?
Yes, men have breast cancer. Surprisingly they do have breast cancer. It’s as common as one out of 100 men having it. And when men have it, they die faster than women. It spreads faster. However, many might not know because men usually don’t do self-examination like women. But you will find out that some who probably put their hand on their chest, they can have it checked and probably detect they have breast cancer. So men have breast cancer.
What are the stages of breast cancer?
We have four stages; stages 1, 2, 3 and 4. You can have stage one, stage 3, you can have stage 2A, stage 2B, it depends on the presentation of the cancer. When you have Biopsy done, the biopsy will tell the patient the stage of the cancer. That’s why we say, we’re comfortable with stages 1, 2. Three to four is 50/50. But we have people who have survived stage three and I can say categorically that I have seen a woman who survived stage 4. A 71 years old woman; she survived stage 4. So even when you are talking about stages, you are talking about treatment, It’s not one side, its 4. I always say that people should come when its stage 1 or 2, not stage 3 or 4. That means that if its stage three or four, it can spread to other organs of the body. But stage 1 and 2 might be in one particular place and it has not spread. But to avoid recurrence, stage one and two will be treated the same way. Treatment of cancer is an individual thing. Presentation of one person’s cancer is different from the presentation of someone else’s cancer. So those stages are very important and occasionally, they determine how one will be successful in treatment. So 1 and 2, I agree, three, we can still say yes, their survival is high but might just be a matter of managing the cancer.
Is there a surge in number of people with breast cancer?
Unfortunately, there is a surge. But people are becoming more aware, unlike before. We probably will say 22.9% of women have it but definitely with our years of screening, we have found out that 1 out of every 12 women have breast cancer. So it’s important that early detection, screening, is carried out. We all live our lives in chance. It is when things get bad that we start running up and down for a solution. So that’s why we always encourage women to have their breasts screened.
Women come there for free to have their breasts ultrasound scan done. But you will find out that it is when they need money for treatment, and it has gone so bad that they will now come looking for help. So we discourage that and encourage early monthly screening. Breast ultrasound scan is important and is age discriminating. Even a young girl can have it done. An elderly woman can have it done. But we don’t encourage having mammogram for women who are of a younger age. From 40 over, if you have it in the family, you can start mammogram early. But we encourage women to please, take advantage of what we are offering in our Foundation and have their breasts screened.
How expensive is treatment of breast cancer?
I’m not an oncologist so I won’t be able to say exactly how much it costs. Like I said, the treatments for two patients vary. It might both be stage two but it depends on the components of the patients’ body because there are special tests that they will run to see what medication we are going to prescribe for each patient. We have some medications that will cost you probably six million and you’re supposed to take it. There is nothing you can do you will have to look for it because that medication is what will kill the cancer cell. Then we have those who they don’t prescribe as much as that for. That is why I am saying to you that treatment of cancer is an individual thing. Cancer is an individual disease. It is not just taking malaria tablets; they have to run series of tests. The Biopsy will be run everything will be done to know your blood group, your blood type and know if that medication is going to kill the cancer cell. So it’s very key that you understand that treatment of cancer is not one side fixes all. We have seen two stage three patients; one did not make it, the other one made it. It’s an individual thing and I cannot put a price on it because trust me, it is very expensive. It is no child’s play. We’ve seen those who have sold properties for treatment of cancer.
What are basic precautions that can be taken to avoid breast cancer?
For precaution, women must continue to do screening, screening and screening. I will not stop emphasizing on it. You must control your alcohol intake. If you’re taking hormone repellant drugs, you need to visit your doctor regularly so that it will not trigger some cells that will start acting abnormally. Being obese is also an issue. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, sleep well. Not having children can also predispose one to cancer. So if you don’t exercise, of course, you might be predisposed to it. That’s why we encourage exercise as well. People should try and exercise.
If you’re using any pill, trying to not get pregnant, try as much as possible to have a gap so that it will not trigger any action that can cause cancer in the body. So your gynecologist might prescribe something, okay, this is what you should do. We all have the way our bodies present individually. We are all different. So you need to know. And then, not breast feeding can also trigger it. That’s why we encourage women to breast feed because it helps your breast. Breast feeding is important to women.
Breast implants also could trigger it. And please, your diet is important. Because most times now, we see that we are into genetically modified organisms. We plant our crops with a lot of chemicals and these things react in the body. So I always encourage one to have a garden in the house. So that whatever it is you can plant and eat daily, I’m sure we cannot have everything in the garden but whatever it is , just to reduce the chances of having any form of cancer, especially breast cancer. Just make sure that you drink a lot of water, rest and most importantly if you have issues, your hormones, you need to be emotionally stable so that it won’t trigger abnormality in any cell. Physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually, be at your top game so that you won’t trigger off any cell to start acting abnormally.
More people have cancer in western world than in Nigeria. But the survival rate is higher over there than here because they prevent early and they Have screening done regularly. So that’s why most of them, you find out that they prevent early because they do their regular breast screening. If you don’t go for your screening as at when due, they would write you a letter that you should come, you’re due for your mammogram, you’re due for your breast screening because they have your records there. That’s why we make it a point of duty that every third Saturday of every month, we have our screening done. So that people can take advantage of it. And it’s best done a week after one’s menstruation because at that time, the size, shape and texture of the breast have gone back to normal.