Picking up the pace in breast cancer fight

Monday January 17th, 2011

MORE than 1,200 breast cancer survivors and their supporters filled the thoroughfares of Paradise Island, all linked unmistakably by one colour ... pink.

In light of staggering statistics by health officials, which estimate 300 to 500 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the country every year, the world's largest breast cancer association hosted their first race of the year in the Bahamas - for the first time.

Through research funded by Susan G Komen for the Cure, last year it was announced that around 23 per cent of Bahamian women diagnosed carry the BRCA1 gene mutation, which puts them at greater risk of breast cancer.

Of these, around half of the women, 48 per cent, are under age 50.

Participating in memory of Craig Soldinger, Erin Brown, a 30-year-old bone cancer survivor and amputee, explained that support was crucial for everyone affected by cancer. Ms Brown said: "It is important for people affected by cancer, period. Whether you're a survivor, whether you're a relative, everyone is affected when one person is affected by cancer. We need support, we need awareness out there, we need that encouragement because the rough days are here every day and we have to push through it because if you decide not to push through it you're gonna fall."

Due to the high frequency of the disease in the Bahamas, current US guidelines - which advise women to start breast cancer screenings after age 40 - are irrelevant in this country.

The study, published in August 2010, discovered that Bahamian women have the highest prevalence of the genetic mutation out of any population in the world.

Medical director of the Bahamas Breast Cancer Initiative Dr John Lunn, one of the researchers of the study, explained the data proved the importance of genetic testing for every Bahamian woman diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dr Lunn said: "The reason why it's important is because the gene predicts early breast cancer and it's usually aggressive. Half of our patients are under 50 when they present for breast cancer - so the main thing to do is all patients with breast cancer should have a genetic test done.

"Firstly, the treatment may be different, certain types of drugs work better with these patients and it's important because you need to test the family so they can know early.

"There are things you can do if you have a bad gene. We can give you genetic counselling and then we can offer some drastic things. Some women in Europe have their breast removed and their ovaries out by the time their 35 to prevent getting it. If you know, you can make these choices, or at least be screened carefully and doctored so at the first sign of the disease you can have something done."

Families like the Thurstons, both caregivers are afflicted, can attest to the devastation wrought by the disease both financially and emotionally. Mother-of-seven Consuela Thurston said she was overwhelmed and inspired by the weekend's events. Mrs Thurston said: "It was my first time going and it was really good. Just the fact that they really honoured us as survivors. I didn't feel alone out there, there were so much women out there with the same problem as me. I didn't feel out of place, I felt at home."

Due to late diagnosis - she was 37 - Mrs Thurston did not begin treatment until she was already a stage four cancer patient. Even though she had insurance, the cost of co-payments wiped out the family's finances.

Mrs Thurston said: "I never in my lifetime thought I would have cancer, especially breast cancer. Nobody in my family had cancer. So I never even thought about going to get tested. I'm the first one on my mother and my daddy's side of the family and I found out at 37 - very young age. I think it's very important to raise awareness that they need to start letting women have an earlier mammogram in the Bahamas.

"Since I've been diagnosed with cancer, it has really opened up my eyes - it has made me look at life in a whole new way. This is happening to a lot of women, people who thought they would never get cancer, most of them under 40 - it's so sad."

Dr Lunn added: "The next study we're going to do is to measure the genetic composition of people who go for screening mammograms - that's the next stage that we've put in request for money for. When people come routinely for their screening mammograms, we offer them the genetic test. That would tell us how frequently the gene the frequency of the gene in the non-affected population people who don't have breast cancer - that's important to know. We probably should make the tests available for the whole female population early in their life.

"It's important to know whether or not you have a genetic predisposition, then we can see how if we can stop this gene from becoming active - that's the next step - but at least you can identify patients very early who are high risk and then you can prevent them from getting breast cancer, that's the idea. It's a big factor, when a quarter of your patients with breast cancer have a nasty gene that's huge."

Funds raised this weekend will support the Bahamas Breast Cancer Initiative, Cancer Society of The Bahamas, Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, Sister Sister Breast Cancer Support Group and Komen's Circle of Promise.

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