At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on studies done in Wuhan, China and Italy, women were advised to hold off on going for breast cancer screenings. This was not just to prioritise Covid-19 treatment but also because findings showed that cancer patients were at a higher risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus.
But now that the spread of the virus seems to be contained and the country is in the recovery phase of the movement control order, the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) is urging women to get their breasts screened because the outcome of a cancer diagnosis very much depends on timing: the earlier it is detected and treated, the higher chances of recovery.
"The fear (of Covid-19) hasn't gone away and many people still fear of being at risk by coming for screening. Those who may have noticed slight signs and symptoms were either unable to get them checked because of the restricted movements during the MCO or, even now, would rather stay home where they feel safe.
"But, at the moment, the risk of contracting Covid-19 may have been lowered, but the risk of getting breast cancer remains the same. We cannot afford to get complacent because if a woman puts off getting checked now, chances are that when the cancer is diagnosed it will be at a later stage and the prognosis may not be as good," says public health physician Dr Murallitharan Munisamy.
In the United States, a which studied the impact of the pandemic on cancer mortality (specifically breast and colorectal cancer which together account for about one-sixth of all cancer deaths) over the next decade suggests almost 10,000 excess deaths. The number, the study suggests, will peak in the next year or two.
"The situation will not be much different here. In fact it could be worse, going by the findings of the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey which found that most women do not go for screenings or do their own self breast exam. Cancer does not stop happening because of the pandemic. Women have to keep doing the breast self-examinations and they have to keep doing their screenings," says Dr Murallitharan who is the medical director at NCSM.
The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 revealed that 75% (3/4) of women above 40 years have never had a mammogram, 50% of women who are 18 years and above do not practice self-breast examinations and 60% of women aged 20 and above did not undergo pap smear tests in the past three years.
"This behaviour (of not getting tested) was apparent even before the MCO and so, with the fears because of the pandemic, it may get even worse. Screening is probably lower in the list of priorities and this can't be the case," observes Dr Murallitharan.
NCSM will be offering free screening for Malaysian women aged 40 and above (with a household income of RM, 5000 and below) through their Etiqa free mammogram programme throughout Peninsular Malaysia. This is the third consecutive year the programme has been running.
"We are working with private hospitals in every state (in the Peninsula) except Perlis. So far, some 5,000 women have benefitted from this programme. We hope that women will take advantage of this and come and get screened," he says.
The programme will go on till Sept 30. For more information or to book a slot, call Adibah (013 6200986) or Dina (019 5483200).
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