Breast cancer occurs as a result of mutations, or abnormal changes, in the genes responsible for regulating the growth of cells and keeping them healthy.
Normal cells will stay where they belong and only divide if and when they need to, however, if the genes are faulty, cells can reproduce to form a tumor. In breast cancer cases, a malignant tumor develops in the breast tissue and can spread.
According to Dr. Marwan Al-Hajjeili, head of the oncology division in King Abdulaziz University’s department of medicine, breast cancer is still not yet fully understood.
“The disease is a misunderstood one, it’s intense and one that is difficult to combat in the late stages. When caught early, it can be controlled. As a consultant, I explain to my patients the importance of understanding what their situation is according to the images obtained from different tests. The stages that come after verifying or refuting depend on these images and it’s best to find hospitals that have advanced machinery for the highest quality images. They’re the most important part of the whole ordeal for confirmation.”
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in Saudi Arabia, according to a 2017 report by the World Health Organization, comprising 18.7 percent of all new registered cases as of 2014.
In cases of breast cancer, medical experts agree that early detection can save lives.
“Women need to be vigilant and aware of their own bodies. If a woman feels that her skin on the breast feels different, some redness, (a change of) shape or the appearance of a lump, she needs to get it checked out to rule out any inconsistencies,” Al-Hajjeili said.
Women above the age of 40 should be screened once a year, but younger women should also keep a routine regimen of health checks.
“The most common cause of breast cancer is hereditary… (but) this doesn’t rule out other factors such as race, ethnicity, menopause and other external factors. However, this is an unpredictable disease and numerous studies are still being conducted to understand it more. The only way to confirm it is through a biopsy — this stage of the test comes after confirming the imaging tests,” Al-Hajjeili said.
For her part, Dr. Suad Mohamad bin Amer, co-founder of Zahra Breast Cancer Association, told Arab News that the disease it easier to deal with if it is caught early.
“When breast cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, it’s easier to treat and cure. For this reason, we are encouraging women to be informed about early detection and screening,” she said.
“Nothing can prevent the disease from appearing. Although (the risk of developing) some cancers can be (reduced) through a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercising and not smoking, it is still not a sure thing.”
Doctors agree that an important part of the difficult process is making sure the patient understands exactly what the diagnosis means.
“When breast cancer is confirmed, a thorough sit down must be scheduled with my patient. I go through every single point in terms best understood by the patient, starting with (the fact) that this can be a controlled disease, reassuring them and putting the doubts away. When patients adhere to the guidelines set and follow up regularly, the survival rates can be very high,” the doctor said.
According to a World Health Organization report this year, there were 2,791 confirmed cases of breast cancer in the Kingdom in 2014. The Saudi Ministry of Health reported that the average age at which the cancer was detected in women was 52. As to the causes of breast cancer, age and family history are the top factors while inherited genes, post-menopausal hormone therapy and nutritional factors are also considered to be important factors.
A small percentage of men have also been known to suffer from breast cancer and, despite the lack of awareness, it is also important that men keep abreast of their health and visit the doctor for regular checkups.
Awareness in the Kingdom has increased due to many initiatives and campaigns for early detection, but it is still a taboo subject. The desire to sweep the issue under the carpet has led many to suffer in silence, but times are changing and campaigners are working hard to spread the word that regular screenings are essential.