October  marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month the world over and in Sri Lanka several organizations and well-known personalities have come forward to  send out messages as part of the activities to create awareness and dispel the stigma attached to cancer.

Global statistics reveal that one in eight  women will be afflicted with the disease during her lifetime. In Sri Lanka, the National Cancer Control Programme said around 3500 women report annually to the cancer centers at national hospitals across the country.

Popular  television actress Susantha Chandramali, a breast cancer survivor, is among those who have come forward to  speak on the importance of early detection and the need to  seek  prompt treatment  to increase one’s chances of beating the condition.

Chandramali (56)  who has overcome the traumatizing experience  of having undergone a surgery to remove the lump on her left breast says she has come out of it  stronger   and wants to share  her  story with women all over the world and in particular with women in Sri  Lanka.

She said the purpose of speaking out despite the stigma attached to the disease is to create awareness and empower women. “ Women  know their body  the best and can detect any changes in their breasts,  early,” she says.

Chandramali was fortunate to detect the abnormality early as she was well informed on breast cancer due to promotional work, she had done for the Apeksha Hospital, Maharagama to create awareness. This helped her detect changes in her body early.

“I had  made it a practice to check my  body often while in the shower and  last  March I  found an unusual lump on my  left breast. First, I was in denial and thought it is benign but  since I knew the breast cancer symptoms, I immediately consulted my family  doctor,’ she said.

The conformation of what she most feared  left her  devastated.  “ ‘The whole world shattered before me. My mind repeatedly told  me this could not  be happening. But the  news eventually sunk in  when  the doctors at the Apeksha hospital confirmed the diagnosis.”

What followed  were daunting days. “ “I underwent a surgery to remove the lump less than two weeks after detection. Just when I thought my ordeal was over, I was informed that I had to undergo chemotherapy to remove any cancerous cells surrounding  the area where the lump was removed.”

In April. Chandramali started on her chemotherapy sessions and then her hair started falling off.

“ I saw lumps of hair just peeling from my scalp . I stood frozen  not able to grasp  what was happening to me. There were many  times I went into the washroom to cry. Hair is important for a woman to look beautiful and as an actress it was especially important.”

No amount of consoling that the hair would grow back made her feel better. “I was almost into severe depression when I decided to shave my head completely. This saved me the agony of seeing my hair falling every day! I wore a hat or a scarf to hide my bold head.”

It was in the middle of her struggle with cancer treatment that she was informed of  the Indira Cancer Trust and the assistance they give  distressed  women like her.

Among an array of service, the organization offers is counselling, monetary assistance for purchase of medication and breast prostheses . They  also  design  personalized wigs for cancer patients.

Having overcome the difficult months , Chandramali is thankful for the new  lease of life. Now she is keen to share her experience and tell women not to  fear breast cancer.  “The word  cancer is not a  taboo. It is like others illness, be it a  ‘cough or a cold’.

She urges  all  women to make time for themselves among their busy chores. ‘We should be healthy  to look after our families. Have confidence and be strong even if you get detected with breast cancer. It  is not the end of the world,’ she said.

She also had a word of praise for the health care workers. “ Our health system is good the doctors at Apeksha Hospital are very efficient and supportive and will help you to come out of it with minimum distress.”

Now nearing the end of her chemotherapy course which will be over in a couple of months, Chandramali plans to return to acting. “ Be strong and don’t lose heart,” she says.

The  Indira Cancer Trust urges all women over 40 years to  set aside one day of a month, ideally one week before their menstrual cycle to check their breast.   Post -menopausal women should have a fixed date each  month to examine themselves  and look for  abnormalities including lumps, changes in shape, rash, and discharge.

Popular TV star Susantha Chandramali speaks on her experience fighting breast cancer