More women are being diagnosed with cancer but regular screening and early detection can lead to better outcomes
When it comes to breast cancer, the news is not all bad. With more women going for mammograms, 80 per cent of patients at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) are diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Because of early detection, they have a much higher chance of surviving the dreaded disease. More women are also being diagnosed with the disease, says Dr Ho Gay Hui (above, right), a senior consultant at the NCCS’ department of surgical oncology.
About 1,400 women here are now diagnosed with breast cancer every year. It is the most common cancer among women in Singapore, affecting one in 17. Childbearing at a later age, not having kids and the increased consumption of alcohol and red meat are all possible reasons for the increase, says Dr Ho.
Women at a higher risk of contracting breast cancer include those with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer and those with certain
benign breast conditions. Unlike breast cancer, fewer women are contracting cervical cancer in recent years as more are going for pap smears.
Dr Lisa Wong, consultant gynaecologist at the Lisa Wong Women & Gynae Oncology Centre, explains: “Cervical cancer is a very preventable disease as it has a long precancerous phase which can be detected with a pap smear and treatment can be administered to prevent cancer from
occurring.” The discovery of vaccines also means that the incidence of the disease is likely to decline further, adds Dr Wong.
Still, about 225 women find themselves diagnosed with cervical cancer every year in Singapore. Those who start having sex at a young age, have multiple sex partners or high-risk partners or smoke have higher risks of getting cervical cancer. While the Health Promotion Board has been actively promoting the benefits of undergoing regular pap smears, many women are shy or afraid to go for the test, Dr Wong says.
This is because it involves a vaginal examination where a tiny speculum is inserted into the vagina and a spatula is used to collect the cervix cells for examination. Hence, many women feel uncomfortable to be examined by a male doctor. This unease and ignorance of the disease are reasons why Dr Wong sees “a lot” of women being diagnosed with more advanced stages of cervical cancer.
For both cancers, the treatment depends on the stage of the disease and whether the cancer cells have spread to other areas. Dr Ho says the earlier the cancer is diagnosed, the less drastic the treatment will be and the higher the chances of surviving it. For example, 90 to 92 percent of women diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer are still alive five years after their diagnosis, compared to only 50 to 60 per cent for those found with Stage 3 cancer.
Life after cancer
Cancer survivors can lead active and fulfilling lives after completing their treatment, say the experts. Dr Ho Gay Hui, a senior consultant at the department of surgical oncology at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, had a patient who, after successfully battling breast cancer, took up dragon boating, a sport that requires strenuous training.
The patient, who’s a grandmother, enjoys it so much that she competes in races here and overseas, says Dr Ho. “Contrary to many who would slow down and take life easy after a cancer diagnosis, she decided to take charge of her health and became more active.” Her patient had regular mammograms and was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer when she was 58 years old.
With her family’s support, she pulled through a lumpectomy, an operation where the tumour and some surrounding tissues are removed, and she completed a six week course of radiation therapy. Dr Lisa Wong, who’s in private practice, had patients who are back at their normal routines soon after completing the
prescribed treatment. The consultant gynaecologist at the Lisa Wong Women & Gynae Oncology Centre recently treated a 42-year-old single woman who was diagnosed with Stage 1B cervical cancer.
With the support of her friends, the patient “recovered well” from a surgery to remove her uterus, cervix,
ovaries and pelvic lymph nodes in March this year. The running enthusiast is back to her fitness routine and she even took part in a marathon.