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Deadly delays in breast cancer treatment

More than 6,000 South African women are diagnosed annually with breast cancer (File photo)
Written by Ayanda Mkhwanazi

About one in 35 South African women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes but delays in treatment may be stacking the odds of survival against them.

Sister Catherine Mashao takes Maggie Phago through a breast examination

Sister Catherine Mashao takes Maggie Phago through a breast examination

It takes about eight months before women with symptoms of breast cancer, present themselves at the hospital for treatment, mostly due to lack of knowledge and delays in referrals from clinics.

According to Professor Paul Ruff who is on the Department of Health’s Advisory Committee on Cancer, there are 6000 new breast cancer cases each year in South Africa, the most common cancer among women.

“ We are seeing the cases late because they usually start at the GP who may not always recognise the lump,” Ruff told Health-e News.

“They will give you antibiotics and it goes away after few weeks then returns,” he added. “So people move from here to there for a long time before reaching the right place”.

But he says that once women reach the big hospitals such as Charlotte Maxeke or Steve Biko Academic Hospitals, “things move speedily and you get the necessary attention and people can even be put onto chemotherapy within two weeks”.

Self examination is important

October is breast cancer awareness month. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the cancer is the second most prevalent form of cancer among South African women and one in 35 women will be diagnosed with the cancer in their lifetime.

CANSA recommends that women check their breasts for lumps monthly and go for regular check ups by health workers.

To facilitate regular screenings the Departments of Health and Social Development and cancer screening organisation Pink Drive opened Hello Clinic. Situated at the Pretoria railway station, the clinic offers men and women convenient, free cancer screenings in less than 20 minutes.

[quote float=”right”]“I have been postponing this check-up for many years because I don’t have time, but at the back of mind, I knew I had to do it,”

Although nurse Catherine Mashao says uptake of the free screening services has been slow, she says that she sees about ten people a day and that most of these are women. If Mashao picks up something concerning during screenings, she refers them to hospitals for tests such, as mammogram chest x-rays, that can detect if lumps are cancerous.

CANSA suggest that women 40 years and older should go for mammograms to check their breasts for cancer every three years.

Captain Jeanette Mothiba is 48 years old and works for the Pretoria Railway Police. She recently went for a check-up at the clinic.

“I have been postponing this check-up for many years because I don’t have time, but at the back of mind, I knew I had to do it,” said Mothiba, who has encouraged police colleagues to also go for screenings to set an example to the community.

However, Pink Drive’s Corporate Relationship Manager Antoinette Joubert says the greatest challenge is linking the clinic’s patients to nearby hospitals for further tests and treatment.

“Early detection can save lives,” Joubert told Health-e News. “When our nurses find a lump, we refer the person to the nearest hospital, but sometimes patients can wait up to three months for a mammogram appointment.”

About 20 breast cancer patients seek treatment at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital weekly but Ruff says patients may wait up to two weeks for treatments. The gap in care may be worse in rural areas.

Gauteng accounts for up to 40 percent of all cancer cases nationally, which may indicate that rural patients are going undiagnosed, according to Ruff.

“ We need to make people aware so they know what to look for,” he said. – Health-e News Service.

An edited version of this story was first published in the 7 October edition of The Star newspaper.

About the author

Ayanda Mkhwanazi

Ayanda Mkhwanazi is a senior journalist with Health-e News.

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