Early detection is key to survival

I am living proof of the need for early detection of breast cancer. I presented to my GP with a lump, which I discovered myself in May 2004. My GP dismissed the lump as a cyst and tried to aspirate it with a fine needle – wrong, wrong, wrong. She did give me a note for the breast clinic, but as I had no medical insurance, that meant the next available appointment in the public system was in late September – over four months away. If I had any inkling that I had breast cancer, I would have paid to go private, but I believed that I was too young to have breast cancer, and besides my doctor told me the same thing. I really thought it was nothing and so did my GP. I am not alone in delaying investigation of a lump. Women put off visiting their GP initially for many reasons – not having time due to family, work or other commitments, or perhaps due to fear. I have heard a woman say that she put off the visit to her GP because if it was cancer she was going to die, and nothing could be done about it.

By the time I was diagnosed in late September 2004, I required surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I don’t know if this would have been any different had I been diagnosed any earlier, possibly not, given the aggressive nature of breast cancer in younger women. 

I never did a self-exam. It never occurred to me. I honestly thought it only applied to older women. So, the question is, how could I have been more aware of the dangers of breast cancer in younger women. Even now, I see that my experience has had no effect on friends and family members of my own age. They just think my breast cancer is an unlucky event in my life, but really don’t relate the possibility of breast cancer happening to them. And yet, it’s vital we get the message out there – that early detection offers the best chance of survival. Women need to be proactive and to act quickly if they discover any changes to their breast.

In Ireland, the situation has become more clouded, as trust in our public health service has been severely damaged, as a result of a series of misdiagoses over the past two years, resulting in the tragic deaths of two women. In addition to this, Breast Check has not been fully rolled out throughout the country, which leaves women in many areas, with no local screening programme.  Now, in today’s Irish Times, a report claims that more than 1,000 women with  concerns about breast cancer have had to wait more than three months to be seen at one of the eight specialist centres for diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer so far this year.

While the majority of women were seen within three months, some 22.8 per cent of them, or 1,106 women, had to wait longer than three months to be seen. The figures, which relate to the position for the first three months of this year, also show that while overall 84 per cent of urgent referrals were seen within two weeks, which is the standard set by Hiqa, some 16 per cent were not seen within this timeframe.

I am not interested in bashing the HSE over this issue, there are plenty of others out there who will do it instead, and ultimately I do think we are moving in the right direction. It is just unfortunate that in some cases, we still have a way to go. The most important thing is that women need to take control of their own health, be tuned into their own bodies and aware of any changes that may occur in them, and then be proactive in seeking medical help.