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Breast cancer is every woman’s fight

I MET Ireen Mukanda White on a hot Wednesday morning at the Cancer Diseases Hospital located in Lusaka’s University Teaching Hospital (UTH) grounds and I was immediately drawn to her charming demeanour.
Ireen is a medium height dark woman in high boots. She wears a huge afro wig and designer sunglasses. We walk to the female cancer ward – a temporary facility for cancer patients before the new cancer hospital, which is still under construction, is completed.
According to acting sister-in-charge Owin Chipunza, there are currently 53 cancer patients admitted to the ward, while many others come for treatment on appointed days.
As Ireen walked in to chat with some patients, her charming character filled the room and her infectious smile and laughter got some response.
“Don’t be fooled by the huge hair, this is just a wig. I lost my hair and it has not grown back the same way. These beautiful clothes are hiding a lot of scars my dear, I have been through exactly what you are going through right now,” she said to Jennipher Phiri, a patient who has lost hair as she is undergoing chemotherapy.
Ireen is an American breast cancer survivor who has come back to her birth country to render support to women who are undergoing breast cancer treatment.
“I was born in Zambia, but relocated to America quite early in my life. However, I come home on holiday as often as I can, and it was actually three months after one of my holidays from Zambia that I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012,” she says.
According to Ireen, she had been feeling a lump in her breast for a long time but did not think it could be something to worry about.
“The funny thing is that I used to feel that lump for quite some time but never thought much about it. I used to have my annual medical check-ups, and it usually involved a pap smear for cervical cancer, but I never mentioned the lump to the doctor until 2012,” Ireen said.
But it was during one of those regular check-ups in 2012 that the doctor examined the lump, and further tests revealed it was stage three cancer.
She said an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy were conducted and they tested positive for stage three breast cancer.
“I was devastated, but I had such a strong support system from friends, family and the medical staff who made it easier for me to undergo the process,” she told me.
Ireen said it was because of the same support, and the realisation that America has better medical services that she also decided to help those affected in Zambia by bringing whatever resources she could.
“I underwent two chemotherapy sessions, radiation and two surgeries. I will need to undergo more surgery as they are currently working on rebuilding my breast,” she said.
Ireen had part of her left breast removed to prevent the cancer from spreading, and doctors are now trying to reconstruct it using tissue from other parts of her body.
She said during treatment, she suffered side effects, which included hair loss, mouth ulcers, migraines and extreme depression at intervals.
“From my chat with the women in the ward, I have discovered these are side effects which we all go through at one point or another, even after completion of treatment. I still get this low feeling where I need to talk to someone that has been in my shoes or understands that I have to wear a wig most of the time,” she said.
Ireen presented gift hampers that included stress pumps, headscarves, safety pins, page markers and barges with inspirational messages meant to uplift the spirits of any patients when the depression threatens to dig in.
And UTH oncologist Catherine Mwaba said it is vital for women to undertake regular physical inspections of their breasts to check for lumps.
She encouraged women to also take occasional medical check-ups every year.
“Regular check-ups ensure that if there is any cancer, it is quickly detected and treatment commences,” Dr Mwaba said.
She said in many respects, Zambia is forging ahead in tackling breast cancer in terms of testing equipment, awareness in the community and the actual process of chemotherapy and radiation.
Dr Mwaba said doctors usually have a challenge with late stage cancer as it is difficult to cure.
She encouraged Ireen to work and align herself with the Zambia Cancer Foundation where other survivors regularly meet and are able to encourage each other and also lobby for more funds and research to be undertaken in the fight against cancer.
Evidence from the 2009 Zambia National Cancer Registry shows that a total of 12,891 cases of cancer were reported, of which 36.6 percent were in men and the rest were in women. According to the research, the most reported cancers in females is cervical cancer (48.5 percent) and breast cancer (11.4 percent).
The study recommended that prevention, treatment and control interventions should be centred on cervical and breast cancers in females and prostate and Kaposi’s Sarcoma in males.
*Key notes
Mammogram – is an X-ray image of your breast used to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms play a key role in early breast cancer detection and help decrease breast cancer deaths. During a mammogram, your breasts are compressed between two firm surfaces to spread out the breast tissue.
Breast biopsy-is a test that removes tissue or sometimes fluid from the suspicious area. The removed cells are examined under a microscope and further tested to check for the presence of breast cancer. A biopsy is the only diagnostic procedure that can definitely determine if the suspicious area is cancerous.
Ultrasound – is a type of imaging. It uses high-frequency sound waves to look at organs and structures inside the body. Health care professionals use it to view the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, liver, and other organs. During pregnancy, doctors use ultrasound to view the fetus
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