The Union health ministry in a landmark step has decided to start screening from the age of 30. The ministry has written to states to start screening women for breast cancer, either through special organized camps or every woman who arrives at a community health centre (CHC) for any other disease. Interestingly, for the first time, India will start breast cancer screening from the grass-root level in CHCs and district hospitals. To begin with, the screening programme is being launched in 100 districts across 21 states.
Clinical examinations of the breast will be undertaken in privacy and in case a suspicious lump is found, the patient will be referred for biopsy. The Forum for Breast Cancer Protection says over 90,000 Indian women die of breast cancer every year, more than any other cancer. By current estimates, one in 25 Indian women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. A World Health Organization (WHO) study predicts that by 2020, one in eight urban Indian women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Worryingly, Indian women seek treatment very late – around 65% are already in stage 3 or 4 when diagnosed.
India’s National Health Profile 2011 predicts that by 2020, breast cancer will overtake cervical cancer as the most common type of cancer among Indian women. A health ministry official said, “Breast cancer is most common among women, who are aged 35-45. However, we don’t want to take a chance and have asked states to start screening from 30 years. Hence, we could detect onset of breast cancer cases early.” He added, “Guidelines have been issued to states on how the screening should be undertaken. Karnataka and Gujarat have started screening, while Haryana and Rajasthan are all set to start. We have left it to states to decide how they want to undertake the screening. What will be essential is to raise awareness among women about early diagnosis and regular screening. States could start camps in CHCs or conduct a clinical examination on all women who attend a CHS or a district hospital.”
Experts say women now marry late and give birth to fewer children, all of which have led to a dip in cervical cancer cases. Ironically, these are the same factors, which have increased breast cancer rates in India. Western lifestyle, increased consumption of fat products, obesity, late marriages, delayed child bearing and less number of children being conceived leading to reduced breastfeeding are all believed to be behind this increased risk of breast cancer.