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Facing breast cancer head on

Facing breast cancer head on

Can remembering the shape and feel of breasts save lives? Although appealing in theory, researches have never proved that breast self-examination minimizes the risk of dying of breast cancer.  

Left to right, Dr. Mahteme Bekele, Seherela Abdulahi, Former first lady Roman Tesfaye and Professor Lisa Newman
Left to right, Dr. Mahteme Bekele, Seherela Abdulahi, Former first lady Roman Tesfaye and Professor Lisa Newman


There are frustratingly conflicting studies out there about whether or not breast self-examination leads to an early detection of tumor growth. Some physicians even claim that self-exams may do more harm than good: by putting unnecessary stress on women and exposing them to unneeded exams. On the other hand, many doctors still recommend it because some patients have detected lumps through self-examinations.

There are no sure ways to prevent breast cancer, as in the cases for most cancers; its exact cause is unclear. “Simply being a woman and having breasts is the main risk factor for breast cancer,” Mahteme Bekele (MD), Head of Surgery, St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College, said. Other risk factors can be genetic or environmental; aging, having a family or personal history of breast cancer, being overweight, and exposure to hormonal and radiation therapies are commonly believed to be risk factors for breast cancer.

Doctor Mahteme, among many other health practitioners, was recently present at a continental symposium to discuss the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in depth.

This two-day symposium was dubbed “Improving Breast Cancer Management and Outcomes in Africa” and took place at the Ethiopian Public Health Institute Conference Hall, Addis Ababa from May24 - May 25, 2018. The meeting focused on strengthening resources that are available for direct patient care; it was geared towards an audience of over 400 researchers, physicians, surgeons, students and healthcare professionals interested and involved in the treatment of breast cancer.

This symposium was presented by the Henry Ford Health System, International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes (ICSBCS) in conjunction with St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College, Breast Oncology Program. It was led by Professor Lisa A. Newman Medical Director, International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes, Henry Ford Health system and Mahteme Bekele (MD).

The event featured 20 healthcare professionals from across Africa. It offered multiple presentations and discussion panels on breast cancer biology and genetics, survivorship and quality of life in diverse populations.

The symposium reminded that breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in Ethiopia. And astonishingly, data shows its occurrence is increasing among men too.

There have been remarkable advances in the field of breast oncology; unfortunately, the development of refined diagnostics methods and medication that target breast cancer is leading to more costly treatments, which are affordable for only to a few. “These advances are not equitably available to all women; we (Henry Ford Health system) have a high priority mission to improve availability of these advances to economically disadvantaged regions and communities throughout the world.” Professor Newman said.

Doctor Mahteme pointed out that even though most cases of breast cancer need surgery, Ethiopia lacks sufficient breast oncologists. “Considering the fact that early diagnosis is made, the chances of survival can become high,” he added. “As you might expect, the chances of survival decreases as the disease becomes more advanced. Unfortunately, the vast majority of breast cancer cases (above 60 percent) reported at the institutions was past the early stages. What the public should understand is, if diagnosed early, breast cancer is curable,” Doctor Mahteme said.

He hopes that with the new strategy (concerning breast cancer and oncology) from the Ministry of Health (MOH), the number of oncologists will increase within a few years.

Seherela Abdulahi, Minister of Health, who was present at the press conference held for the symposium, stated that all governmental health centers, including those outside Addis have collaborated on giving free breast cancer screenings. And regarding treatments, she added: “Chemotherapy was only accessible at the Tikur Anbessa Hospital, but recently around 12 health centers have started to give the treatment,” she added. “We are also working on ways to get women with early stages of cancer to get vaccinated,” the Minister of Health said.

In addition, seven cancer centers, including the Tikur Anbessa Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College, are being built all across Ethiopia.

Former First Lady, Roman Tesfaye, also present at the press conference, said: “I believe this two-day symposium is well-timed and necessary because with the current information, breast cancer has been shown to be the most prominent cancer affecting women. The diagnosis and treatment of the cancer is very demanding financially and requires a lot of professional knowledge, and it’s one of the reasons it is greatly feared. I believe this symposium will provide a good experience sharing platform based on the real similarities from these African countries,” Roman said.

By and large, the intention of the symposium was to provide advanced knowledge about ethnicity associated variations in breast cancer, as well as broadened understanding of international medical and surgical practices to attendees. Professionals discussed how the updated research could impact future decision-making in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

It was advised that early detection and treatment of breast cancer, is the best way to reduce the life threatening risk of breast cancer, especially for those considered at risk. Symptoms or breast cancer warning signs to look out for include: swelling of all or part of the breast, breast pain, inverted nipples, nipple discharges, skin irritation, redness, and thickening of nipples.