The severity of the breast cancer burden in Nigeria was recently highlighted by an oncologist, Dr. Brenda Nwanmuo, during the launching of a mammography machine at the Eldorado Hospital, Awka, Anambra State. The oncologist revealed that Nigeria currently ranks fourth globally among nations with endemic breast cancer. Quoting statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the medical expert disclosed that 4.4 million women are living with breast cancer globally, even as WHO projects that about 1.7 million additional breast cancer cases would be diagnosed in 2020 in developing countries.
Indeed, breast cancer is reportedly the leading cause of deaths among women globally. Annually, it accounts for over 400,000 deaths globally. Worldwide, it is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths, coming behind lung, stomach, liver and colon cancers. But in Nigeria, breast cancer is the commonest cancer among women, and it is the number one killer cancer.
Available data shows that about 100, 000 new cancer cases are discovered annually in Nigeria. Many of these cases are breast cancers. Also, Nigeria records as many as 40 deaths per day from breast cancer. The scourge equally kills over 14, 000 women in Nigeria every year.
Of the commonest cancers recorded from 1960 to 1980, six per cent was breast cancer. It rose to 14. 8 per cent from 1980 to1985. It has risen steadily since then.
Medical experts have attributed the high mortality rate of breast cancer to the late presentation of cases. In a country like Nigeria where millions of women are unaware of the disease and its symptoms, many of them do not visit the hospital until it is too late. Although medical experts are not too precise on what causes breast cancer, it is generally believed that a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors are responsible for its rise.
One in 20 cases of breast cancer is reported to be inherited. About one in 1,000 individuals is believed to carry the genes responsible for the disease. This means that if a family member is diagnosed with breast cancer, it is most likely by chance. In spite of this, women whose close relatives had cancer might be at risk.
To curtail the scourge, women have been counselled to pay closer attention to their breasts. Experts prescribed the breast awareness practice which involves getting to know what is normal for the breasts in terms of look and texture, so as to spot any changes and get them checked immediately.
Starting from the age of 20, women are advised to embark on monthly self-examination of their breasts. It is believed that the monthly self-examination would help a woman become familiar with her own breasts, and she can easily tell if a new lump is developing. Women under the age of 50 are advised to have regular mammograms, usually every two years.
Signs or symptoms such as a lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit; changes in the size or shape of the breast; a change in skin texture; a change in the colour of the breast; rash, crusting or changes to the nipple, and any unusual discharge from either nipple, among others, should be reported at a healthcare facility without delay.
At the moment, Nigeria cannot boast of having the mammography centres it requires. Although many of the country’s teaching hospitals are equipped with mammography machines, they are grossly inadequate. Stakeholders have suggested that there should be a minimum of one modern cancer-screening centre in every state, while each general hospital should be equipped with mammography equipment.
There is also dearth of oncologists in the country. Available data shows that Nigeria has about 50 oncologists. This is poor for a country with over 198 million people. As at 2016, the United Kingdom had no fewer than 1, 334 oncologists, including consultants, locum consultants, trainees and others. And that is a country with a third of Nigeria’s population.
To curb the breast cancer scourge ravaging the country, the government must invest in the training of more oncologists and other experts needed for the management of the disease. The government, health advocacy groups and other stakeholders should ensure that the public is adequately enlightened on breast cancer, its causes, symptoms and preventive measures. The Federal Government must pay greater attention to cancer, early diagnoses and treatment options.