W

hether with the dupatta of a shalwar kameez or the pallu of a sari, South Asian women’s breasts have traditionally been hidden from view. But the desire for modesty can be deadly—inadvertently causing breast health and breast cancer to fall under the same taboos. And while the dearth of discussion on these topics may be just another example of old world reticence clashing with new world openness, in this case there are fatal consequences. To combat this community-wide silence, we’ve rounded up the facts on breast cancer and how it affects your health.

Breast cancer rates have been rising quickly among South Asians.

When the disease hits home

Are desi women more or less susceptible to breast cancer than their counterparts? The truth is, nobody knows. While it was once believed that South Asian women have a lower risk of breast cancer than Caucasian women, breast cancer rates have been rising quickly among South Asians. Of course, the rate could have been lower simply due to a lack of detection—it wasn’t (and still isn’t) uncommon for many South Asian women to be reluctant about examining the state of their breasts. A 1998 study reveals that South Asian women’s limited awareness leads them to have fewer self-exams and mammograms—only 12 percent performed monthly self-exams.

But there is room for optimism—a 2004 British Journal of Cancer study indicates that South Asian women with breast cancer have higher survival rates than their non-Asian counterparts. In fact, the authors even believe public awareness has reduced the risk of South Asian women sitting at home when mammogram time rolls around.

But there is room for optimism—a 2004 British Journal of Cancer study indicates that South Asian women with breast cancer have higher survival rates than their non-Asian counterparts.

But I’m too young

It’s true that the incidence of breast cancer is lower in young women—but when it does strike, it’s even more deadly. Young women are more likely to need a mastectomy or die from breast cancer, according to Dr. Rache Simmons, a breast surgeon at Strang-Cornell Breast Center in New York. If your personal risk factors are high (there’s a history of breast cancer or non-cancerous breast disease in your family, or you have a history of radiation therapy), then you are more susceptible to the disease than most. And breast cancer in young women is often more aggressive and less likely to respond to treatment. What’s worse, it often goes undetected because many women simply don’t think they can get breast cancer at a young age.

Young women are more likely to need a mastectomy or die from breast cancer.

Take action to stay healthy

The good news is that increased awareness leads to increased screening—which leads to better chances of cure. Ninety percent of women whose breast cancer is found in an early stage will survive. We owe it to ourselves to abandon one inherited part of our culture—the taboo surrounding women’s breast health—and commit to keeping ourselves healthy. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women 20 years of age or older should perform monthly breast self-examinations. Here’s how you can keep yourself in check:

1. Make it a habit to do the exam the day after your period ends, so you have an instant reminder and you can avoid the tenderness associated with menstruation. Most women have fibrous, or lumpy, breasts to some degree, so don’t be unduly alarmed if you feel some lumps. The point is to become familiar with the way your breast looks and feels normally so that you will notice anything abnormal.

2. Stand in front of the mirror, hands on hips, to examine the size, shape and color of your breasts. Things to look out for include redness, rash, soreness, swelling, dimpling, puckering or newly inverted nipples.

3. Raise your arms and repeat your visual examination.

4. Squeeze the nipple to see if there is any abnormal discharge, whether it is blood or milky fluid.

5. Next, lie down and use your left arm to examine your right breast. Keep your fingers flat and together. Whether you move in a circular direction, from side to side, or top to bottom, cover your entire breast, including up into your armpit, your collarbone and your cleavage. Use your right arm to repeat this examination on your left breast.

6. Repeat this physical examination while standing up—easily done in the shower.

For more detailed information, check out the multimedia demonstration at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation web site.

(This breast exam information comes from BreastCancer.org.) n

Published on October 1, 2004.
Photography: Vikram Tank for Nirali Magazine.
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