Breast cancer and Angelina Jolie

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I am sure everyone in the modern world will have read about Angelina Jolie’s double ‘prophylactic’ mastectomy after finding she carried the hereditary breast cancer gene.  Her mother died from the effects of breast cancer, so there is some degree of justification, but personally I think she has over-reacted somewhat.  Having the breast cancer gene is not a 100 percent predictor of getting breast cancer.

However, “Cancer” is still a word which induces fear.  And in some cases, rightly so.  Cancer can be a killer, but not always.  There are many people who have had cancer and lived to tell the tale.  My dear old Mum had cancer of the womb and ended up having a hysterectomy before she was 50 years of age.  She was 94 when she died of pneumonia, so I think we can safely say the operation was a success!

The treatment for cancer is classically surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  Much depends upon the type of cancer, and how long it has been growing, and how far it has spread.  This can be a single modality, or combined.  There is also much work being done with the immune system and cancers, with a vaccine for some types of cancer on the horizon.

However, I came across an article the other day referring to advanced breast cancer survival rates and compared two similar kinds of cytotoxic drugs.  The end result of the study was that Drug A was more effective than Drug B, but had significantly more side effects as well.  Reading further, it was reported that Drug B extended life by 13 point something months, while Drug A had the sufferer living 15 point something months; however, the downside to these two extra months included mouth ulcers, infections and low blood counts.  However, the researchers had come to the conclusion that Drug A was best.

I ask you, best for whom?  In my book, it wasn’t the patient!  Yes, it’s my old hobby horse – the Quality of Life.  What is the point of saying you can have Drug A to give you two extra months of life when that is a life of misery?  One thing is for sure, I will put my last baht on the fact that none of the research team took either drug!  At least the famous medico John Hunter gave himself syphilis to try to find the cure.  And it wasn’t the ‘fun’ way, but self administered syphilitic pus.  You won’t find that kind of dedication today, even though some people would call it foolishness.

We must never forget that in all our research we are not dealing here with body cancers – we are dealing with patients that have cancer!  We, the medical profession, must treat the whole person, not the disease.

Now I mentioned breast cancer at the start of this item for a couple of reasons.  One is the fact that screening tests can be done, and I would suggest that all you ladies over the age of 40 (or over the age of 30 if your mother or a maternal aunt died of breast cancer) should consider annual mammograms in addition to your monthly Breast Self Examination.

The second reason I mentioned breast cancer is that it is not, as many western women think, the greatest killer of women.  For many 10 year groups of women, heart disease is the greatest killer.  Yes, heart disease, the greatest killer of men is now firmly entrenched in women’s medicine.

So what can you do about this?  The simple answer is to take a leaf out of the Eastern ladies’ handbooks on living.  An Asian diet, which is high in vegetable content and low in animal fats is a good start.  More of a Thai ‘jai yen yen’ approach to life’s problems also helps.  Use the ‘family’ network to get problems solved, and in fact the family approach to living, with each member helping when necessary, is another good example from the Asian book of life.  And finally, the Buddhist practice of moderation, the middle way, applies to the women folk as well the men.

And if you haven’t done it already – give up smoking.