Breast cancer in India: Stigmas attached and what you need to be aware of

Gayatri Vinayak
·6-min read
1 in 29 females will develop breast cancer during their lifetime between 0-74 years of age.   Image credit: Image by <a href="">marijana1</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>
1 in 29 females will develop breast cancer during their lifetime between 0-74 years of age. Image credit: Image by marijana1 from Pixabay

As per a recent report by medical journal, The Lancet, breast cancer rates are on the rise, globally. The study, which used data from 41 countries, reveals that while breast cancer cases are increasing in pre-menopausal women in higher-income countries, the rates of breast cancer in post-menopausal women are growing in lower-income countries. While there has been an overall spike in breast cancer rates, the study terms the increase in pre-menopausal cancer as worrying.

As per the report, 20 out of 44 population groups, each representing a country or ethnic group, that is moving from lower to higher-income status, are witnessing significant increases in pre-menopausal cancer rates, while post-menopausal cancer is increasing in 24 out of 44 populations. A reason for this could be that these countries have adopted a more westernised way of life, including increased consumption of alcohol and lower

The statistics involving breast cancer in India, are alarming. A report released by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has said that 14 lakh new cancer cases would be diagnosed in India this year, with breast and cervical cancer among the commonest in women. As per the report, 1 in 29 females will develop breast cancer during their lifetime between 0-74 years of age.

India also has a low breast cancer survival rate – only 60 per cent of women treated for breast cancer have a five-year survival rate post-treatment. This is compared to 89 per cent in the US.

Urbanisation has been a leading cause of high breast cancer rates in India, the World Health Organisation states, with the most developed states showing the highest increase in rates. As per the WHO’s World Cancer Report, improvements in the socioeconomic status of women, with higher education levels, increasing household incomes, late marriage, increasing adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, lower levels of physical activity in successive generations of women and dietary changes that have shifted from consumption of cereals and vegetables to more processed food, dairy products, beverages and meat, have corresponded with higher rates of breast cancer.

Breast cancer: a social stigma

Though today, cancer is less stigmatised and more spoken about, in India, especially when it comes to cancer of a women’s reproductive organs or on the breast, large scale stigma still exists. This, and the lack of awareness associated with it, often lead to a number of last stage diagnoses and unwarranted deaths. And, to add on, a lot of misinformation gets spread about breast cancer.

A survey conducted by Aegon Life Insurance revealed that 50 per cent of the women respondents agreed that secrecy surrounding factors such as menstruation and sexuality serve as a hindrance to openly discussing such diseases. Cultural factors such as the hesitation to discuss circumstances surrounding the ailment with family members and to self-examine for lumps or other symptoms leads to delay in diagnosis and treatment. This is primarily because, in India, there is a deep-seated cultural prejudice against women discussing their body parts, especially sexual organs, openly.

As per reports, in India, early diagnosis accounts for only 30 per cent of the cases, as compared to 70 per cent in the developed world. Due to this delay, the mortality rate of the disease is also much higher in the country, since many women approach treatment towards more advanced stages (3 and 4).

Another major worry that the report reveals is that most Indians are not aware of the causes of breast cancer. While some believe it is genetic, others feel that it is hormone-related. While genes do play a role, lifestyle also plays a major role in the disease. As per oncologists, factors such as obesity, smoking and tobacco use, alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle, severe stress, late childbirth and no breastfeeding, along with dietary factors, all play an avoidable role.

Reducing your risk

While it may not be possible to completely prevent breast cancer, there are things you can do to lower your risk of developing it.

Be aware: It is important to educate yourself about your breasts on what is normal and what is not. Spread this awareness. You can talk about it on your social media page, encourage your family members to self-examine and undergo mammogram tests, if possible.

Be physically active: Try to get in at least 30 minutes of exercise every day – you could brisk walk, run, do aerobic exercises or anything that suits your body. Also, avoid taking the lift, use the stairs as much as possible and do not sit for too long. Doing your household chores will also keep you physically active and fit. This will help you maintain healthy body weight and reduce your risk of breast cancer.

Limit alcohol and do not smoke: Women who drink three alcoholic drinks a week are at a 15 per cent higher risk of getting breast cancer than women who do not drink at all. Avoid alcohol, or if you must have, limit it to not more than once a week. Since there is a huge body of study linking smoking with breast cancer, it is better to avoid it completely.

Self-examine: Make it a practice to self-examine while bathing. Approach your doctor in case you find any abnormalities, as early diagnosis can increase your chances of survival and recovery. While self-examining, look out for any redness, rashes, or soreness, distortion, inverted nipple or any changes in its position, any lumps on your breast or armpits or any signs of fluid coming out of your nipples, especially if you are not breastfeeding.

Do screening: Any cancer caught at an early stage can be treatable, and the survival rates are much higher. Hence, routine screening, especially if you have a family history of breast cancer, lowers one’s risk of late detection. Talk to your doctor about the different kinds of screening processes there are to determine which suits you.

Healthy diet: While no diet can guarantee protection against breast cancer, following a healthy, natural diet will reduce your risk. Eat a rainbow platter with leafy vegetables, fruits, multi-coloured vegetables, local millets and pulses, herbs and spices and avoid processed food, refined carbs, sugar, fried food and fast food.