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.