May 26, 2010

NEW ZEALAND: Six Breast Cancer Survivors Stand By Self-Examination

WELLINGTON, New Zealand / Taranaki Daily News / News / May 26, 2010

By Feleicity Ross - Taranaki Daily News

Six Taranaki women who may have saved their own lives by finding malignant breast lumps are angry cancer experts are saying self-examination is "pointless". They all claimed they would not be here now if they had not carried out the checks and have slated breast cancer doctor John Harman for telling 100 women at a New Plymouth conference that checking themselves for lumps was a waste of time.

All six women spoken to by the Taranaki Daily News discovered their own lumps which turned out to be breast cancers. Some found malignant lumps in between mammograms. One, a former medical professional and ex-tutor who did not want to be identified, found a lump when she was 65, just six months after a mammogram. "It was particularly aggressive," she says. "If I had waited another 11 months to have another mammogram, well, I wouldn't be here." The women say the statements made by experts are dangerous and incorrect.

Logo of breast cancer treatment service started by Dr. John Harman

Former health sciences teacher and breast cancer survivor Jennifer Berndt says awareness is the key word. "We all found our lumps and it's irresponsible to tell women not to check themselves," the 65-year-old said.

Nicky Joffe, 44, discovered a lump in her breast three years ago while taking a shower. She took the drastic decision of having a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She was not eligible for a Government-funded mammogram because she was under 45. She said self-examination was important for women her age and younger.

"I found it myself," Mrs Joffe said. "I can't stress enough about women being aware of changes in the breasts. It's not just an old ladies' disease."

But Dr Harman said women would be better off spending the money on a mammogram every year or using a Government programme.

The National Screening Unit supports Dr Harman's position with its statement on breast awareness and the Cancer Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation also do not recommend the practice of regular breast self-examination.

Cancer Society screening and early detection adviser Sarah Perry says the evidence is simply not there to advocate routine breast self-examination.

"That's what used to be taught. We advocate breast awareness, so women are encouraged to know what's normal looking for changes in the breast," Ms Perry said. "If they detect anything that's not normal they get treatment straight away."

Women can have a free screening mammogram every two years through BreastScreen Aotearoa if they are aged between 45 and 69 years of age, have no symptoms of breast cancer, have not had a mammogram in the last 12 months and are not pregnant.

Women outside that age group will need to see their doctor to be referred to a private radiologist to have a mammogram. [rc]

© 2010 Fairfax New Zealand Limited