People of Ekiti State were thrown into mourning over the weekend when the Deputy Governor, Mrs. Funmi Olayinka, passed on. Reports say she died of breast cancer.
For a high-profile woman like Olayinka, who was once a bank executive before she became deputy governor, it was obvious that she didn’t die as a result of lack of resources to tackle the disease. Rather, it’s probably because being diagnosed with cancer is almost akin to being handed a death sentence.
And this is not just in developing countries alone. In advanced countries where there are multi-billion-dollar worth of resources dedicated to fighting cancer, reports say even the treatments are becoming suspect, as chemotherapy treatments are now being shown to lead to second cancers that are not necessarily related to the one a victim was treated for.
In many cases, scientists note, those who survived ovarian, cervical, colon and breast cancers later developed leukemia (blood cancer), traceable to the chemotherapies they received while accessing treatment for an entirely different type of cancer.
The new cancers were said to have been diagnosed between two and nine years after the original cancer had gone into remission. Such is the fear that surrounds cancer diagnosis and treatment.
One of the commonest cancers is breast cancer. Many people wonder what causes this particular cancer and why women are the most vulnerable. To start with, scientists and researchers have confessed to not knowing what causes it. In relation to the second question, Head of Department of Radiotherapy and Oncology, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, Lagos, Remi Ajekigbe, says women get breast cancer simply because they are women.
He notes, “There are many risk factors that predispose a person to breast cancer. Some of them are beyond you, simply because you are biologically predisposed. However, there are some that you can control in terms of life-style choices.”
One of the risk factors you cannot change is the issue of gender, Ajekigbe says. He explains, “Being a woman is the main risk for breast cancer; but while men also get the disease, it is about 100 times more common in women than in men.
“The next is age, as the chance of getting breast cancer goes up as a woman gets older. In fact, about two out of three women with invasive breast cancer are 55 years or older at the time of diagnosis.”
Others are genetic factors and family history. Ajekigbe says breast cancer risk is higher among women whose close blood relatives have the disease. The relatives can be from either the mother’s or father’s side of the family. “Having a mother, sister, or daughter with breast cancer about doubles a woman’s risk, though it’s also important to note that over 85 per cent of women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of this disease. So, not having a relative with breast cancer doesn’t mean you can’t get it,” he warns.
Worse still, the physician notes, “a woman who develops cancer in one breast has a greater chance of getting a new cancer in the other breast or in another part of the same breast, which is different from a return of the first cancer (called a recurrence).”
Experts also say women who have denser breast tissue have a higher risk of breast cancer because, among other reasons, doctors may find it harder to spot emerging problems on mammograms.
Ajekigbe also warns that those who see certain benign changes in breasts may have an increased risk of breast cancer.
As cruel as cancer can be, experts say, women who begin having periods before age 12, or those who reach menopause after the age of 55, have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer, perhaps due to a longer lifetime exposure to oestrogen and progesterone.
There are lifestyle choices that can predispose a woman to having cancer, scientists say. Not having children at all or having them later in life is one. Researchers say women who have not had children, or who had their first child after age 30, have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. They note that being pregnant many times and at an early age reduces breast cancer risk, because being pregnant lowers a woman’s total number of lifetime menstrual cycles.
While economists advocate birth control to make for economic growth, scientists warn that women who use birth control pills have a slightly greater risk of breast cancer than women who have never used them. They advise women to consult a doctor before using birth control pills.
Again, post-menopausal hormone therapy, used to relieve symptoms of menopause and prevent osteoporosis, may also increase the chances of dying from breast cancer, experts warn.
Ajekigbe also cites some studies which prove that breastfeeding slightly lowers breast cancer risk, especially if it lasts between 18 months and two years. He also says a baby girl who was well-breastfed by her mother has reduced risk of breast cancer later in life.
Researchers are unsparing when it comes to the use of alcohol, which, they say, is clearly linked to an increased risk of getting breast cancer, while it is also known to increase the risk of several other types of cancer.
Being overweight or obese after menopause is also linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, especially when the extra fat is around the waist.
Can you eat your way out of cancer? Researchers say no food or diet can prevent breast cancer. They do say, however, that some foods can make your body the healthiest it can be, boost your immune system, and help keep your risk for breast cancer as low as possible. Healthy foods may also help control treatment side effects or help the body get well after treatment. Some food choices may help cancer treatment work more effectively or may help keep you healthy. Others can be dangerous and can interfere with treatment and recovery.
Good news, though. Experts say some of the most common cancer types, such as breast, cervical, oral and colorectal cancers have higher cure rates when detected early and treated according to best practices.
By Solaade Ayo-Aderele
This article was first published in The Punch
Last modified: April 9, 2013