Krusada: Early breast cancer detection

By Nathalie Blanco, Multimedia producer and researcher, Krusada

Posted at Oct 07 2011 03:30 PM | Updated as of Oct 07 2011 11:30 PM

ANCHOR: Karen Davila

Breast Cancer—it has no known cause, no definite symptoms, and no available vaccine. Three out of ten Filipinas are at risk, but even men can have it. It kills 4,371 Filipinos every year and is consequently the number one cause of mortality among Filipinas. The only way to have a higher chance at surviving the disease is to find it first before it finds you.

However, it is widely feared upon to a point that many women refuse to have themselves checked. Most of the time, patients come too late—when the cancer has advanced to stage two or three. On the case of indigent Filipinos, money is obviously a deterrent. Check-ups, screening and treatments are generally expensive; but this is not always the case.

Karen Davila crusades for the early detection of breast cancer through self-examination (also called SSS or “Sariling Salat sa Suso”) and regular screening. She also supports I Can Serve Foundation in putting up cancer detection centres in local governments which offer free consultations and discounted screening services. Among other things, this is done by training medical teams and partnering with both public and private hospitals in the area.

Karen Davila interviews Dr. Francis Lopez, St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City medical oncologist

Likewise, the Cancer Prevention Center was established under the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) Cancer Institute. With its early detection clinic, the first of its kind, asymptomatic patients who are at risk may have themselves checked.

Doctors advise women 40 years old and above to have annual mammography exams. Mammography is a process of using low energy x-ray to examine breasts for masses that may indicate breast cancer.

In this episode, Karen underwent her first mammography and breast ultrasound. She was curious but nervous at the same time; for her family had a history of breast cancer. Shortly after her digital mammography, results were revealed. Small nodules were found on both of her breasts.

Karen Davila undergoes digital mammography

Dr. Barbara Perez, Head of Breast Imaging at the St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City, suggested a breast ultrasound in order to find out if a nodule is a ‘true mass’ and if it is, to further know if it is water-containing, a cyst or a solid matter—if it is dangerous or not.

Small nodules were found on both of Karen Davila’s breasts but were confirmed not to be dangerous

The breast ultrasound cleared Karen of any signs of breast cancer.

Cancer warriors

According to the Philippine Cancer Society, 12,262 new breast cancer cases arise annually. April of this year, former model Tetta Ortiz-Matera was added to that list. The 46-year old mother of two could be an image model of healthy living—she exercises five days a week, eats healthy food, stays away from fast food and sodas—and yet she woke up one day and found a lump on her breast. It turned out to be a malignant tumor.

Tetta Matera being examined by Dr. Lopez while undergoing chemotherapy

Because of constant self-examination, she discovered the tumour before it developed. At early stage one, Tetta’s case was highly curable. She was operated on right away, removing it from her breast.

But Tetta’s battle did not end there. Doctors found another five malignant lymph nodes. Her aggressive cancer developed from stage 1 to 3A in a matter of months. Dr. Diana Cua-Balcells, Tetta’s breast surgical oncologist, said that the diagnosis did not come as a surprise; 40 years old is the average age of women with cancer. However, she said that Tetta’s healthy lifestyle may have delayed it.

Tetta continues her chemotherapy with a positive disposition as she believes that ‘fear is not going to change anything in your life’. She is solely focused on surviving now. She understands how fortunate she is to have the finances to support her treatments—she will not let it go to waste.

While some patients have to pay significant amounts for consultations in private hospitals, the Breast Care Clinic of the UP-PGH Cancer Institute receives around 100 patients everyday for free.

Miriam Cortez was one of those patients. Krusada met her early in the morning when she came with her family and friends for her first chemotherapy. Like Tetta, she is also 46 years old; but because of late detection, her breast cancer soared to stage 3B. The cancer has eaten her right breast and spread to the other. It had also creped to her stomach.

It took her a year to have the small lump on her breast checked. Miriam’s family lives on catching and selling fish for a living; but since the market started to impose a rental fee, they could no longer afford it. They lost their livelihood. Her husband had to stop fishing as well so he could take care of her.

Miriam’s children had to raise money for her first check up and biopsy at their local hospital. When the doctors advised Miriam to undergo chemotherapy, they did not know where to get the money from. Even when they transferred to PGH where most services are discounted if not free, her medicines did not come cheap.

Her three children worked extra hard while her husband, Ric or “Ibot”, resorted to selling their boat, appliances and furniture. Other than the treatment, they also had to shell out money for transportation. The family was extremely glad that her second round of chemo was granted by the Philippine Charities and Sweepstakes Office (PCSO); however, they will not need it any longer.

A week after her first chemotherapy and four days before the airing of the episode, Miriam died while sleeping. She struggled until the end, but is believed to be at peace when she died.

Miriam’s story shows the importance of early detection. Early stages are highly treatable (stage 1 and 2) while late stages (stage 3 and 4) have fewer chances of survival.

Cancer survivor Rosalina Sanchez believes that time is critical when it comes to breast cancer. Early detection saves a patient from getting worse while getting fewer treatments. It also saves money and energy. Furthermore, early detection speeds up the process of healing despite a patient’s age.

Rosalina speaks out of her experiences. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 57, just months after her sister died of the same disease. After feeling a lump on her chest, she patiently asked around for free consultations in their area. She was able to get a mammography without paying a cent; but then she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, forcing her and her family to gather more money.

With the help of all her children, family, friends and foundations, she completed her treatment, including a mastectomy. Just a year after, she had already fully recovered. Presently, at age 59, she is healthier and livelier more than ever. She actively supports ‘Ating Dibdibin’, a support group for breast cancer warriors and survivors initiated by I Can Serve Foundation.

Breast cancer myths and risk factors

Breast cancer is not caused by wearing underwire bras or using deodorants—contrary to popular belief. It is also not true that it can only afflict women. While breast cancer does not have definite symptoms, risk factors include aging, self and family medical histories, overweightness, unhealthy diet, alcohol and smoking. September 15, 2011