The Asia-Pacific Women’s Cancer Coalition recently launched a report called Impact and Opportunity: The Case for Investing in Women’s Cancers in Asia Pacific.
WHAT’S IN THE REPORT?
Published by the Economist Impact and supported by the pharmaceutical company Roche, this report presents a detailed examination of the burden of women’s cancer, specifically breast and cervical cancer, in 6 countries in the Asia Pacific region: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The report includes detailed snapshots of the breast and cervical cancer burden, incidence, and mortality in each of the 6 countries mentioned above. Readers will access the following information:
Current cancer care capacity status
Existing policies and planning
Prevention and screening measures
Diagnosis and resource capacity
Quality of treatment and access
Levels of awareness and education about breast and cervical cancer
The report furthermore identifies the gaps and opportunities for relevant stakeholders to improve the provision of assistance to women dying from these cancers every year in Asia Pacific.
THE MALAYSIAN SNAPSHOT
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FEATURED EXPERT DR NIK MUHD ASLAN ABDULLAH
Sunway Medical Centre
BREAST CANCER AFFECTS MEN AS WELL AS WOMEN
Breast cancer in both men and women share many similar attributes.
The most common kinds of breast cancer in men are the same kinds that are present in women, namely:
Invasive ductal carcinoma
Invasive lobular carcinoma
Ductal carcinoma in situ (or DCIS)
Dr Nik Muhd Aslan Abdullah says that breast cancer is, however, rare among men.
According to Dr Nik, many of the most pressing early warning signs of breast cancer in men are also similar to those found in women, such as:
Lumps in the breast tissue
Skin dimpling or puckering
Unusual discharge from the nipple
HORMONAL CHANGES CAN GIVE RISE TO BREAST CANCER
One reason why breast cancer is rare among men is that the hormone testosterone inhibit the growth of breast tissue, while oestrogen stimulates breast tissue growth.
While men and women have both hormones in their bodies, men have higher levels of testosterone compared to women. On the other hand, women have higher levels of oestrogen.
Some breast cancer cells have special structures at the surface, called hormone receptors. These cells are called hormone-receptor positive (HR positive for short). Oestrogen can bind to these receptors to cause the growth of these cells. Dr Nik explains that men have a higher possibility of developing breast cancer cells that are HR-positive, when compared to their female counterparts.
“Breast cancer cells in men are sensitive to hormonal imbalances,” Dr Nik explains, “so any factors or conditions that can lead to an excess of oestrogen and a lack of testosterone will increase their risk of developing breast cancer.”
What can cause the raise in oestrogen levels in men?
Klinefelter syndrome, a rare genetic condition in which a male has an extra X chromosome and produces lower levels of androgens
Injury to the testicles
Use of androgen inhibitors
Liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
Family history also plays a factor
About 1 out of 5 men with breast cancer is found to have had a family history of the disease.
This is because men can also inherit a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes or in other genes, such as CHEK2 and PALB2. These mutations will highly increase their risk for breast cancer.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a say in the types of genes we inherit,” Dr Nik says.
He recommends that men with a family history of cancer should consider seeking counsel from their doctors about going for genetic screening tests as soon as they can, especially those over the age of 50.
Genetic screening tests involves taking a blood sample for analysis. A genetic counsellor will then advise the person, based on the results given, on what the next best steps would be for him.
MEN WITH HR-POSITIVE BREAST CANCER ARE MORE LIKELY TO RESPOND TO HORMONE TREATMENTS
Dr Nik explains that hormone therapy can be used to help lower the risk of the cancer cells spreading or treat cancer that has come back after treatment.
Why then do men with breast cancer have lower survival rate compared to their female counterpart?
“Through many of the studies that I’ve seen, men who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a 8-9% lower survival rate than women,” Dr Nik says.
He attributes this to the fact that men with breast cancer are often diagnosed late.
“Men will sometimes wait too long to seek out a diagnosis for the symptoms they may be experiencing,” he explains, “or not recognize the warning signs of breast cancer in their bodies.”
As a result, they delay seeking help, and tend to do so only when the cancer has become advanced and spread to other parts of the body.
Dr Nik encourages men to seek a doctor’s opinion if they find themselves experiencing any of the mentioned symptoms related to breast cancer. “Breast cancer can be cured, and it is very treatable if detected early on,” he says.
FEATURED EXPERT DR WINNIE NG NYEK PING
Consultant Clinical Oncologist
Subang Jaya Medical Centre
NO FAMILY HISTORY OF BREAST CANCER = NO PROBLEM? WELL, THINK AGAIN!
“Even if one has no known family history of cancer, external factors such as environmental exposures, prolonged exposure to female hormones and lifestyle features may contribute to an increased relative risk of breast cancer,” says Dr Winnie Ng, a consultant clinical oncologist.
“Aside from genetics, there are numerous underlying possible causes of breast cancer,” says Dr Ng
Prolonged exposure to female reproductive hormones such as oestrogen, such as in women that reach menstruation at early age, women that have never been pregnant, women on oral contraceptive pills, women that experience menopause late, and woman that have their first full-term pregnancy at a later age
Postmenopausal women on hormone replacement therapy
Therefore, even if you have no family history of breast cancer, Dr Ng recommends that still going for breast cancer screening.
“The easiest method of screening is by self-examination of the breast,” she adds.
AS WE STILL DON’T HAVE A CURE FOR BREAST CANCER, SCREENING REMAINS THE MOST PRACTICAL SOLUTION TO DETECT BREAST CANCER EARLY
Dr Ng recommends that:
Women below 40 should undergo a breast ultrasound.
Women above 40 are advised to go for a mammogram.
You should consult your doctor about your risk factors and how often you should go for breast cancer screening.
“A breast cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. Self-tests and regular screenings can save lives,” says Dr Winnie Ng.
FEATURED EXPERT DR CHRISTINA LAI NYE BING
Consultant Clinical Oncologist
Sunway Medical Centre
WHY IS BREAST CANCER SO PREVALENT AMONG YOUNGER WOMEN THESE DAYS?
Aside from unhealthy diet and exposure to cancer-causing chemicals or carcinogens in the environment, Dr Christina Lai Nye Bing shares that one possible factor is that women are choosing to marry and have children at a later age.
This somewhat paradoxical concept can be explained by the link between breast cancer and the female sex hormone oestrogen.
“Breast cancer is a hormone-related cancer, and high levels of oestrogen in the body increases the risk of breast cancer as it encourages cancer cells to grow by promoting cell division and reproduction,” Dr Christina explains. “Women in the previous generation who get married and have children earlier have a lower risk of breast cancer, as the oestrogen in their body decreases when they are pregnant and choose to breastfeed.”
FEATURED EXPERT DR HOO MEI LIN
Consultant Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist
Sunway Medical Centre
IS PREGNANCY IMPOSSIBLE AFTER CHEMOTHERAPY?
Given that chemotherapy plays a big part in the treatment regime of many women with breast cancer, this raises the concern of whether the dream of having a family in the future an impossible one for them.
The unfortunate truth is that chemotherapy affects a woman’s fertility, with a 40% to 80% chance of early menopause.
The ovaries stop producing eggs upon menopause, so with that, the dream dies… or does it?
While Dr Hoo Mei Lin admits that the damage to the ovaries due to chemotherapy is irreversible, there is still a glimmer of hope.
“Patients can plan ahead, as conservation methods such as embryo freezing, egg freezing, and ovarian tissue freezing are available to enable patients to fulfil their wish of having children,” she shares.
Egg and ovarian freezing are suitable options for women that do not have a partner prior to having to undergo chemotherapy.
KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE
Dr Hoo advises breast cancer patients to have an open mind about their future and even consider having children.
After all, breast cancer patients under the age of 45 have an 80% survival rate after treatment!
“With the rapid advances in medical technology today, there is hope for breast cancer patients and survivors to plan their future. Technologies like egg and embryo freezing gives them the opportunity to have children in the future,” she says.
When it comes to cancer diagnosis, the focus is often about treating it, making fertility an afterthought. However, with the advancement in medical technology, surviving a cancer diagnosis is becoming increasingly successful hence, it is important to speak to your doctor as there are ways to help preserve fertility.