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Since 2002, women above the age of 50 in Singapore have been able to enjoy government-subsidised mammograms, and this has led to an increase in breast screening among eligible women over the years: from 30.9 in 2017, to 37.9% in 2020.

With more women getting screened, there has been an uptick in early detection of breast cancer. This lends itself to better treatment options in the form of minimising treatment complexity and expanding technical options, resulting in higher survivability and quality of life.

As the saying goes, “Early detection saves lives.” We speak to two dedicated breast care medical professionals from the SingHealth Duke-NUS Breast Centre, who share their heartfelt thoughts and experiences in raising breast cancer awareness in the community even as they work tirelessly to treat and care for breast cancer patients.

Read more: How the SingHealth Duke-NUS Breast Centre hopes to beat breast cancer odds

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Community outreach to raise awareness and dispel myths

Breast cancer and care are no longer taboo topics, spoken about in hushed tones. Today, women proudly wear the pink ribbon during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) in October every year, to celebrate and honour breast cancer survivors and stand in solidarity with them. Media campaigns also openly encourage women to go for screenings early and heighten awareness about breast cancer as the number one cancer affecting women worldwide.

Every year, the Breast Centre works collaboratively with its community partners to roll out a schedule of outreach-education activities, including large scale public webinars and focus groups for participants to learn more about breast cancer, and in-person activities like craft workshops for breast cancer survivors and members of the public held at the five Breast Centre institutions.

These educational activities are for women of all ages, “even women who are younger than 50, and those far younger than that too,” said Dr Julie Liana binte Hamzah, a Consultant with the Breast Centre; Breast Surgery in Singapore General Hospital; and Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology in the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

She continued: “A question I hear often is ‘when should women start worrying about breast health’? I do think we should begin as soon as possible- puberty would be an appropriate time, when the breasts start to develop. Girls should be taught what a normal breast looks and feels like, so that they can pick up any abnormalities at self-examinations.”

Reiterating the importance of early education and awareness of breast issues, Dr Julie firmly maintained, “Breast health and breast cancer awareness are part of basic health literacy.”

Because of her firm belief in this, Dr Julie is also actively involved in community outreach programmes that aim to dispel myths and misconceptions around breast cancer and its treatments, in hopes that more women will go for regular screening and get the treatment they need.

Raising awareness within the medical community

Educating the public is crucial in the fight against breast cancer, but Ms Bernice Yong, a Nurse Clinician in Singapore General Hospital, is also interested in advocating for more fellow healthcare staff to step forward and be screened under the SingHealth Well Women Programme (WWP).

WWP is a cluster-wide initiative that she champions alongside fellow nurses, radiographers, radiologists, and breast surgeons across the cluster. After talking extensively to her fellow staff that they have not been utilising the WWP for various reasons, Bernice and her team are working to increase the take-up rate for healthcare workers.

Having cared for many patients with breast cancer, Bernice is familiar with the anxieties women face when they notice a breast lump. This may be one of the reasons why some healthcare workers are not getting screened despite knowing the importance of early detection.

The common belief that doing a mammogram is painful may be another reason keeping them away. To address this, Bernice was very intentional in sharing on intranet the compliment from a patient who had a pleasant experience undergoing mammogram. “We wanted to let staff know that we have a very experienced and skilful team with gentle hands to do the mammograms and they need not be afraid.”

Even as staff know about the importance of screening, there was another hurdle to cross: Staff may not be aware they have such a benefit available to them. “When we surveyed our colleagues, many of them shared that they were not aware of the WWP and paid for their mammograms at other clinics instead.” To address this issue, Bernice and her team have been working closely with their institution’s Human Resources department to increase general awareness of the WWP.

Marching ahead to empower women with increased awareness

The war against breast cancer has a long way to go, but every little bit of effort to raise awareness of breast cancer and encourage more women to go for regular breast screening counts.

“What we do to impress upon the community the significance of early detection ultimately empowers women to make that choice to go for screenings regularly and be diligent in conducting self-examinations once a month,” said Dr Julie.

With the concerted effort from the committed doctors, nurses, and staff of the Breast Centre and the wider cluster, the tide is surely turning, one enlightened woman at a time.

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