The pandemic has delayed breast cancer screening and treatments over the past year. However, with most of the population vaccinated, health professionals are urging women to get screened and/or resume treatments as soon as possible.
“We have been keeping track of Covid-19 deaths. But what about Covid-19-related deaths, such as among patients with non-communicable diseases including cancer?
“The pandemic has disrupted cancer response and we will be seeing the catastropic reprecussions of this in the next five years or so,” says managing director of National Cancer Society Malaysia, Dr M. Murallitharan (pic).
“There were different pockets of people who were affected. Those who were diagnosed with cancer and have started treatment but had to delay their treatment because of the pandemic; those who were diagnosed but were too afraid to start treatment because for fear of contracting Covid-19; those who, unfortunately, were being treated and while getting treatment contracted Covid and died and those who may have experienced or noticed some symptoms and in a normal situation would have gone to see a doctor but have put it off.
“And then there are those who have no symptoms and have not gone for their regular screening because of the pandemic.
“This group is what we deem the ‘missed opportunity’ because if the cancer is detected early, before the onset of symptoms, their chances of survival will be very good,” he says.
In a recent news report, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that there were a backlog of some 57,355 surgical-based and medical-based procedures because of the pandemic, of which 2.6% or 1,412 involve cancer cases.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” opines Dr Muralitharan. “Athough some people have blamed the Health Ministry for the backlog, it really was the situation the world over where hospitals and health systems were overburdened trying to cope with the pandemic. The Health Ministry has been outsourcing its medical services to smaller hospitals across the country to ease the load of bigger hospitals. This is the way to go because people are still not comfortable being in hospitals because of the perceived risks of contracting Covid-19,” he says.
However, as the country begins to heal from the pandemic, Dr Muralitharan says that outreach to encourage cancer patients to come out and get screened and treated has to resume.
“The messaging now should be to encourage people to come out and get screened again, while keeping safe. People are still terrified of going to hospitals.
“But this could be detrimental to their own well-being and to society at large.
“What we can do is to encourage them to to go to lower-risk centres such as private care clinics, smaller hospitals or private hospitals,” he says.
And October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, is the opportune time to get screened as many hospitals have programmes and subsidies for screening.
“Early detection is key. The difference between early and late diagnosis is life.
“If you get diagnosed at Stage 0 to 2, your five-year survival is in the high 90% compared to about 40% if you are diagnosed at Stage 4.
“Early detection is life-saving,” says Dr Muralitharan.
To encourage more women, particularly those who may not be able to afford a mammogram, NCSM and Etiqa have launched the “Since You Are Here” campaign by providing free mammogram screening for women at the same time when they are getting their Covid-19 vaccinations at selected partner hospitals across Peninsular Malaysia.
“The idea is to get those who are already at the hospitals for the vaccine to also screen for breast cancer, since they are there.
“Now that most of the adult population has gotten their vaccines, we are opening it to those who are bringing their teens for their vaccinations,” says Dr Muralitharan.
This campaign is applicable for Malaysian women aged 40 and above, with a household income of RM5,000 and below.
To receive the free mammogram screening, eligible women will need to show their vaccination details to the hospital staff.
The 10 hospitals participating in this campaign are; Putra Medical Centre in Kedah, Anson Bay Medical Centre in Perak, Mahkota Medical Centre, Putra Specialist Hospital and Hospital Pantai Ayer Keroh in Melaka, SALAM Specialist Hospital in Terengganu, KPJ Perdana Specialist Hospital in Kelantan, KPJ Puteri Specialist Hospital in Johor, Nilai Medical Centre in Negri Sembilan, and Bagan Specialist Hospital in Penang.
This free mammogram programme for underprivileged women has been running since 2017 and so far, some 19,364 women have benefited to date.
Eligible women and interested community leaders are encouraged to contact Thulase from NCSM at 017-6338757 from Monday to Friday, between 8.30am to 4.30pm.