When an individual is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, the focus is mostly on treatment of the disease. However, one aspect of their overall healthcare that may often be overlooked is their emotional wellbeing.
For women suffering from breast cancer, the Breast Screening Programme (BSP) has been providing a support service over the past five years, through its survivor group, Bosom Pals, which was launched in 2011 to help women and their families through the difficult period.
“They do counselling to the survivors and to their families if they need to. They would visit with them, they would call them when they’re having their surgery done, and chemotherapy. That’s why they’re called Bosom Pals; they become sisters,” medical coordinator of the Breast Screening Programme Dr Shirley Jhagroo told Health TODAY.
“Who better to help you in a situation like that than someone who has walked the same road? And that’s why they’ve become so close.”
The ladies meet once a month at St Dominic’s Church Hall and also talk with the families, husbands and partners of current patients, as well as the newly-diagnosed.
This, Dr Jhagroo believes, can make a big difference to the family.
“Because you know in our society, we have a matriarchal society . . . and whenever the woman, the head of the house, comes down with something like this the whole family is devastated. So I think the survivor group makes a difference.”
The assistance of a survivor group is especially important, given the increase in cases over the last three years.
The BSP recorded 59 new cases last year, a significant jump from the 2014 figure of 33. The year before that, 20 women were diagnosed. The majority of cases were at Stage One and Stage Zero. The figures do not reflect the overall statistics for the island, but Dr Jhagroo believes they will soon be available now that a cancer registry is in operation.
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in Barbados. Dr Jhagroo is therefore advocating regular check-ups and self-examinations, so that the disease can be detected early.
“Statistics show . . . self-examination is important. Now more than 85 per cent of women find these lumps themselves, if there’s a lump is to be found. Not that all lumps are cancerous, but the fact is they found a lump, and they’ll only find if they’re checking,” she noted.
“Then you have that percentage that will be found with the mammograms, have absolutely no symptoms, and that’s where screening is important . . . . Those patients do well, because we follow up the mammogram with a biopsy, and we have facilities here to do what’s called stereotactic biopsy, which is very accurate, and with that they’re able to detect the cancer,” Dr Jhagroo added.
The annual Walk for the Cure during October has helped to raise awareness of the disease as well as detection and the treatment options available.
“So, therefore, what we need to do is make sure that we follow the early detection programme, which is offered here, and learn how to examine our breasts, make sure we have it done, have your regular checks and your screening done,” Dr Jhagroo insisted.
“And if there’s anything there that’s going to develop, let it be found early, because with early detection lives are being saved.”
A recent development which doctors say will also contribute significantly to the emotional wellbeing of breast cancer patients, is insurance coverage for reconstructive surgery at the time of a mastectomy.
“So when you wake up from your surgery, you have breasts. It’s really devastating to wake up and you find one breast gone completely, or a huge void in one because they had done a lumpectomy. Breasts are one [aspect] of women’s sexuality and our beauty and . . . I think the recovery period will be a lot better,” Dr Jhagroo said.
The BSP is now looking to raise funds to extend the same privilege to women who do not have health insurance.
Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month was back in October, the disease remains one of the biggest health concerns for women, hence the continued efforts by the Breast Screening Programme to raise awareness and improve services to women.