One On One

Q & A – Prof Alicia Sherriff

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Studies have indicated that the prevalence of breast cancer among South African women is increasing and that it is one of the most common cancers among women in South Africa. It is believed that breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting women in South Africa with one in 27 developing the disease in their lifetime.  The disease is the most prevalent cancer amongst white and Asian women and the second most common cancer among black and coloured women. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked the Free State Health Head of the Clinical Department, Oncology, Professor Alicia Sherriff how the disease affects health and how it can be managed. Excerpts:

What is breast cancer and what causes it?

Breast cancer is the abnormal growth of breast tissue. The cause is unknown in most patients, but there are some factors that increase your risk of developing breast cancer for example familial genetic syndromes, smoking and excessive alcohol use, and obesity, among others. It is important to note that a person can develop breast cancer even if there is no family history or any of the above mentioned risk factors.

How would you describe the breast cancer situation in South Africa?

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in females in South Africa. In the Free State at our state facility, it is second to cervical cancer. We see on average 350-400 new breast cancer patients annually.

How does breast cancer affect one’s health?

The diagnoses of cancer in general will affect your psychological well being. The physical symptoms you can experience will depend on the extent of the cancer. Important – a lump in the breast does not have to be painful to be cancer. Side effects from treatment may include tiredness, hair loss, nausea and vomitting.

Breast cancer also affects men, how prevalent are such cases in the country?

About 1.8 percent of breast cancer diagnoses in South Africa are made in men.

Does breast cancer in men have the same effect on health as in women?

Yes, breast cancer in men is essentially treated similarly as in women.

At what age should one start worrying about the possibility of breast cancer?

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. That said, women as young as 18 years of age have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Self-examination is important so women can be familiar with their breasts so that any change will be picked up early.

Screening for breast cancer in the normal population should start at age 40 with yearly mammogram.

What should one do when they suspect they have breast cancer?

One should go to their local clinic or general practitioner immediately for an examination

What sort of treatment is available in South Africa and how easy is it to defeat it?

The treatment consist of a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy. The treatment is individualised – some patients will need all of the above whilst others may not.

What services does the FS Department of Health provide for breast cancer treatment?

With regards to treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy. Also, genetic testing (if it is indicated), counselling and follow up services. Mammogram services are also available for diagnoses and screening.

What does the provincial health department want people to know about breast cancer during the month of October and why is it important?

Early detection is of the utmost importance. Breast cancer is treatable if diagnosed at an early stage. Awareness is critically important in all age groups and communities.