The month was January; the year, 2004. Catherine Ngaracu-Mutua felt a pimple-like growth on her breast. “The small lump was not even painful,” she says. “I was not in distress; neither was I in any kind of pain. Nothing was unusual.”
She ignored it. A couple of months down the line, Catherine realised that the tiny ‘thing’ had grown into a conspicuous and palpable lump. An FNA test revealed that she had breast cancer, and she was advised to lose the infected breast (through a mastectomy) or risk the cancer spreading to other parts of the body.
Catherine, like many women, learnt about breast cancer from conversations with friends and from the media. The language and terms she encountered after discovering she had breast cancer made her wish she had someone to break the jargon into simpler terms.
Lucky Ndanu, a lady in her 20s, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 23. “Everything the doctor explained to me sounded bad and beyond human understanding,” she says, adding that she already had a feeling she was in real trouble; like hearing the voice of a leopard and not being able to see it in darkness.
Have you ever felt kept in the dark with your own body; something happening in your body but you have no idea how it would unravel? According to Catherine and Lucky, it can be a very unnerving feeling.
Eve Woman spoke to Dr. Masha Rose, Dr. Esther Wanjohi, a specialist, and Raphael Kinuthia, a clinical cytologist, and brings you important breast cancer terms that you may encounter.
1 BRCA gene: If you test positive for an abnormal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, then you are at elevated risks of suffering breast cancer. BRCA genes are DNA contents of one’s cells, and their presence indicates that one is almost assured they will suffer from breast cancer at some point in their lives.
2 Cancer stages: The type and extent of treatment doctors prescribe is hinged on the stage of the cancer development in ones tissues. Cancer stages are usually expressed as a number on a scale of 0 through to 4. At stage 0, the cancer is none invasive and largely remains localized. At 4 (IV in Roman numbers), cancer cells are invasive and have spread outside the breast to other parts of the body.
3 Carcinogen: This is any substance associated with growth of cancer. For example, tobacco smoke, alcohol, and certain chemical compounds, have been determined to increase chances of one contracting cancer.
4 Carcinoma: When cancer occurs in cells that make up the top membranes that cover or line many organs or organ systems, it is called carcinoma. In many cases, the term is used by medics to refer to a cancer arising in the epithelial tissue of the skin or of the lining of the internal organs.
5 Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy (often shortened to chemo) is cancer treatment that utilises certain medicines (drugs) to destroy or control the growth of cancer cells. Chemotherapy can also harm healthy cells that divide quickly, such as those that line your mouth and intestines or hair follicles.
6 Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA): The procedure is diagnostic; done by doctors to pick small tissues from a suspected mass or lump, which could possibly be cancerous. A thin needle is inserted into an area of abnormal-appearing tissue or body fluid and samples are picked for further testing.
7 Lumpectomy: Depending on the extent of cancer development in the breast, your doctor may decide not to remove the whole breast tissue (mastectomy) but instead excise the diseased part only. Lumpectomy is surgery in which only the tumor and some surrounding tissue is removed – as opposed to the whole breast.
8 Malignant: A malignancy is a growth or mass of cancerous cells that have potential of sloughing off in pieces, which then translocate to other organs of the body where new tumors form. Malignant cells quickly spread to other parts of the body, spreading the cancer and undermining possibilities of total healing. Benign cells, on the other hand, are abnormal growths that are not cancerous; so it does not invade into nearby tissues or spread to other areas of the body.
9 Mastectomy: When a breast has been found to harbor cancer, depending on the stage of the disease, doctors may advise that the whole breast tissue be removed. This is done surgically at a hospital in a procedure referred to as mastectomy.
10 Radiotherapy: This is a method used to treat cancers, thyroid disease and some blood disorders. High-energy radiation is usually beamed at target areas where tumors have been located. The procedure permanently destroys DNA of cells it is beamed on, killing them and, therefore, cutting them off from any kind of activity.
Prominent side effects during radiotherapy treatment is hair loss, which at times, is called ‘alopecia’, though the original meaning of alopecia has nothing to do with cancer, but hair loss from other causes. In most cases, the hair grows back after treatment ends.
11 Remission: During treatment against cancer, doctors monitor the progress of the patient. If a critically ill patient has been receiving treatment and appear to be responding to the medicine, and tests confirm a steady decline in cancer cells, then it can be said they are on remission. Remission is steady healing process with proof that one is moving towards being cancer-free.
12 Self-exam: We are all advised to be aware of our bodies. Self-examination is recommended by doctors for one to watch out for early cancer developments. In many cases, doctors use the abbreviation BSE (breast self-examination) to refer to a spiral and inward palpation of breast tissue from the outer edges of the breast area up to the nipple.
BSE is done to notice developing lumps, unusual pain, wounds, pimples, texture, color and other transformations of the breast.
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