As the world observes Breast Cancer Awareness month this October, women above 40 years in four regions in the north may not have their breasts adequately screened of cancer, because there is no mammography machine in this part of the country.
Issues at stake
The four regions are Northern, North East, Savannah and Upper East.
In the Upper West Region, the newly inaugurated Wa Regional Hospital has a mammography machine, but it is not being used because the hospital does not have a specialist to operate it.
In the circumstance, women 40 years and above in these five regions may not know their status or undergo proper treatment, a situation, which poses a grave danger to their well-being.
The lack of mammography machine is not only affecting treatment for women above age 40 diagnosed with cancer, but also a challenge to health care workers as it puts them in a dilemma in terms of how to screen women above that age.
The GNA has gathered that the nearest place to the north where a mammography machine is available is the Holy Family Hospital at Techiman.
Mammography machine is used to screen mostly women who are above the age of 40 and it is the standard diagnostic test to confirm lumps in breasts.
The Tamale Teaching Hospital (TTH) had this machine, however, it broke down several years ago leaving patients, who require such services, to either travel to Techiman or abandon treatment.
October is observed as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is an annual campaign to increase awareness on breast cancer to ensure amongst others that every woman has access to education, screening, treatment, and support of the disease.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 270,000 new cases of breast cancer and nearly 42,000 breast cancer deaths annually, and breast cancer is the most common cancer and the second most fatal cancer in women.
As part of the month-long event, the TTH has been screening women of breast cancer and counselling them on the disease.
A 42 year-old woman from Lamashegu, a suburb of Tamale, who did not want to be named, reported at the Breast Care Unit of the TTH on October 27, complaining of pains in her breasts.
Nurses at the Unit examined her breasts and informed her that she needed a mammogram diagnosis to ascertain the problem in her breasts and that such a test was only available at Techiman.
The woman said even though she was in serious pains, she did not know when she would go to Techiman for the test because she did not have the resources.
She told the nurses that she would consult her relatives and some friends for support to enable her to make the trip for the test. Madam Tina Yakubu, a 40 year-old Beautician from Nyohani, a suburb of Tamale, also reported for breast screening on October 28.
Madam Yakubu felt normal, and only wanted to know her status. After screening, the nurses told her that there was nothing wrong with her breasts but advised her that it was good that after 40 years, she should do a mammogram for further assurance, and referred her to Techiman for the test.
She said she would go to Techiman for the test within the next two weeks because she was currently attending to an assignment in Tamale.
She spoke about the non-availability of the mammography machine in Tamale saying “It would have been good to do the test in Tamale. The machine should be here so that many women will get treatment. Maybe, I can travel to Techiman but some will not be able to go.”
Since the beginning of the month, the Breast Care Unit of TTH has screened over 2,000 women of the disease, where about 200 of them were identified as positive cases, some of who were at advanced stages.
Some of the positive cases were women above 40 years of age and had been referred to Techiman for diagnosis to determine the preferred treatment plan for them.
Madam Evelyn Osei-Amoah, Oncology Nurse Specialist at TTH, spoke to the GNA about the effects of non-availability of the mammography machine at TTH and the entire four regions in the north, saying “You will write the request for the patients and it can take a patient about three months to bring the results.”
Madam Osei-Amoah said “You can’t blame the patient because she is now going to look for lorry fare to travel to Techiman and go and pay for the test also. So, there are some of them, we write for them and they won’t even do it. So, it is a huge challenge.”
She added that “When it comes to us screening our women, when we get there, we are a bit stuck and even at the breast clinic, when a woman comes above that age complaining of pain, complaining of uneasiness in the breast, what at all are you going to do? Are you just going to use a needle to prick trying to find out where? If we have the mammography machine, a patient could have done that test and it would have been of help to us. So that is a very huge challenge to us.”
She appealed to well-meaning organisations and individuals to support, by purchasing the machine for the TTH to help in providing quality care for cancer patients above the age of 40 years.
Recently, the government added breast cancer care to diseases covered by the National Health Insurance Scheme in a bid to remove the cost barrier and make treatment accessible and affordable to all women.
However, the non-availability of the mammography machine in the four regions has rather increased the cost of accessing breast cancer care as well as denying treatment for some women especially those 40 years and above.
Dr Anthony Nsiah Asare, Presidential Advisor on Health, whose attention was drawn to the situation, told GNA that he would engage authorities of the TTH to repair its mammography machine to continue to serve people in the region.
He said government would ensure that the new regional hospitals to be built in the Upper East, North East and Savannah Regions would be equipped with mammography machines to serve women in those regions.
Early diagnosis remains the cornerstone of breast cancer control. When found early, and if adequate diagnosis and treatment are available, there is a good chance that breast cancer can be cured.
If detected late, however, curative treatment is often no longer an option.
In such cases, treatment may improve quality of life and delay disease progression, while supportive and palliative care should be readily available to relieve suffering for patients and their families.
The majority of women who die from breast cancer live in low- and middle-income countries, where most women are diagnosed in late stages due to a number of factors including; limited awareness on the part of members of the public and health care providers, and the lack of access to timely, affordable and effective diagnosis and treatment.
Women above age 40 in the northern part of the country cannot continue to wait for hospitals, which are yet to be started, to be completed before they can have access to diagnostics and treatment for breast cancer.
In the meantime, government should procure mammography machines and train specialists to man them at district hospitals to provide adequate care for women, who require such services as the country awaits the construction of the new regional hospitals.