Our greatest weapon against breast cancer is a simple conversation

Early detection is critical, but we can't detect a disease if we don't acknowledge it

A couple stands outside the Tijuana Cultural Centre (CECUT) as its dome is illuminated in pink as part of the Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on October 19, 2020. / AFP / Guillermo ARIAS

In my line of work as a breast cancer surgery consultant, I have to deal with many challenging realities. One of the most difficult to accept is that breast cancer is still the most common type of cancer affecting women in the UAE.

Most cases of breast cancer are preventable through early detection, or by leading a healthy lifestyle and being aware of other factors, such as any family history of the disease. But my mission is different from just spreading awareness on the physiological aspects.

I want to see a world where we have transformed how we view this disease, through open dialogue. Breast cancer still carries stigma in the Middle East and many parts of the world, and this is one of the biggest barriers to conquering it.

Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to talk about certain subjects? Taboos are almost a kind of tradition, passed down from one generation to the next. As with any tradition, we ought not to forget that as the world changes, we must adapt.

When it comes to breast cancer, we need to start talking about the disease and its implications on our society to younger audiences.

The facts and figures speak for themselves – the disease no longer only affects more mature women in their 40s and 50s.

In many cases, it is taking the lives of patients much earlier. That is why we are seeing new guidelines about getting screened and tested from as early as 25 years of age, and even younger in some parts of the world.

While the reason why this is happening is still under investigation by the global healthcare community, we still have to ask what we as a wider society can do about this now.

We need to start educating the next generation as they enter their teens, and empowering them by having an open conversation about the disease.

School programmes and university partnerships are crucial to starting dialogue among young people about the threats of the disease and their role in initiating change.

Similarly, mothers raising their children need to make them aware of breast cancer earlier, just as they might with other health issues.

Cancers are caused by tumours – mutations of the body’s tissue cells. In breast cancer patients, it usually originates in the breast tissue. Fundamentally speaking, breast tissue is not limited to females – it exists in males as well.

But it makes sense for women to be the focus of breast cancer awareness campaigns, considering that statistics show that it overwhelmingly affects women.

However, statistics on breast cancer in men remain limited and are not widely discussed. The lack of data may even be linked to lower breast cancer awareness among men, who are less likely to take note when they find a lump on their chest or underarm.

New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg, right, hands out pink masks to customers to draw attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Tuesday Oct. 20, 2020, in New York's Bowling Green subway station. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

As a result, the mortality rates for breast cancer are higher among men. That is why it is vital for the societal discussion on breast cancer to take place across genders.

Every October, I see various advertisements and television series using pink to demonstrate solidarity with Breast Cancer Awareness Month – a testament to the strides made about discussing the disease in mainstream media.

Survivors of the disease, including some public figures, have begun talking about it, rather than battling it silently. More experts ought to join together with public figures to advocate awareness all year long.

A Breast Cancer Awareness sign is seen before the first half of an NFL football game between the Washington Football Team and the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

But society's conversation about breast cancer then dials down for the rest of the year. This should not happen, as breast cancer is not a seasonal condition. It is also an aggressive disease if it is not caught early, and the true rate of recovery remains uncertain among medical practitioners.

It is vital for the societal discussion on breast cancer to take place across genders

The key to improving the recovery rate is to take away the taboos and fears, and encourage people to visit their doctors for regular checks and detect potential breast cancer early. 2020 has been tough on all of us, but we can take a pledge today, as Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, to take action.

Breast cancer is more dangerous when we do not talk about it. If we ignore it, we give it greater power to harm us. It is easy to think that, as a surgeon, I see life through a clinical lens.

But I do not want to have to inform another mother that she have late-stage breast cancer or yet again inform a young woman that she might not make it to her next birthday. No one needs to go through that. Hopefully, in a world where early detection becomes the norm, no one will.

Dr Nahed Balalaa is chair of the outpatient department and a consultant in breast cancer surgery at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City in Abu Dhabi