It was just a few weeks back when my mother told me about a distant relative who has been bedridden for a while and had unfortunately now been diagnosed with breast cancer. Although I do not know the woman, I couldn’t help but empathize with her. I placed myself in her shoes and at that moment I felt her pain, sensed her struggle, and was momentarily engulfed by the perceived sadness that had taken over her spirit.

It seems like a death sentence but it is not
I pictured her in an emotional dilemma, debating with the self whether to allow her adult children to exhaust all their funds for her medical care, or whether to let life take its course.

But as the fog of pity cleared, I started thinking…why do we automatically render a cancer diagnosis a death sentence? And at that moment, I realized that, like most, I am guilty of that as well. The truth is, I, like many, have a fear of death. I am certainly not in the minority as perceiving cancer as a death sentence is very common, especially in countries where there are limited medical resources for cancer patients.

However, this fear, instead of inspiring us to have regular medical checks that will help minimize the mortality rate and increase the chances of a complete recovery rather chains us. It constricts us into a state of emotional immobilization. It successfully dissuades us because we are more fearful of the prognosis than we are of the actual disease. Somehow, the knowing part; the being informed part, is in our minds more lethal than the actual disease.

It is more prevalent than it seems
Like most countries, Botswana has not been spared the scourge of breast cancer. Clinical studies indicate that breast cancer is the most common malignant disease diagnosed amongst women in Botswana after cervical cancer. Sadly, the majority of patients still present with a stage three diagnosis. This is despite Botswana being said to have more resources compared to its neighbouring African countries, including a national health insurance plan that covers generic cancer medicines and a few therapies for free for its cancer patients. It is unfortunately not the same in other African countries.

The WHO data published in 2020 indicates that breast cancer deaths in Botswana reached 68 or 0.35% of total deaths. Placing it at number 170 in the world in terms of deaths caused by breast cancer. And this is primarily because breast cancer in Botswana is often diagnosed late, with most patients presenting at advanced stages due to factors such as lack of knowledge, fear of the diagnosis, and fear of death.

Privileged but unbothered
I have to confess that even though I know what a mammogram is, and have known about it for a while, I have yet to have one done. My medical insurance graciously provides free checks once a year but I have yet to utilize this free service. If I said I do regular self-checks myself it would also be a lie because the only physical checks done on my breasts are by my gynecologist during my yearly checks.

Apart from my fear of death, I am also guilty of the mentality of totally rendering breast cancer to genetic history. I have convinced myself that since there is no known history of the disease in my family, I am safe. I have ignored all the other factors that might apply to me and have chosen to be passive about my breast health. This is the reason why women are still dying from breast cancer today, the reason why we present the disease at late stages making it difficult for successful medical interventions.

But we must win this war
As my mind delves deeper into the topic of breast cancer diagnosis, I equate it to entering a battlefield. The stage at which you enter the battle determines your survival chances. It’s a dance with the angel of death, and only your refined steps can increase your chances of winning this battle. But the battle is not only with the disease but also with our mind frames. To win the battle, maybe we should fear the disease more than we fear death, and love life more than we fear a diagnosis. And maybe then we will be more concerned about ensuring that it is detected at its earliest possible stage.

In this month of Breast Cancer awareness, I pledge to do better. I pledge to love myself enough, to love life enough, and to care for my health by doing the necessary to ensure that I am not a statistic of a disease that could be controlled through early detection. I hope you will do the same.