x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Breast-cancer test can't be ignored

It is doubly a tragedy that some women who have had screening for breast cancer fail to show up when follow-up tests are needed.

Women who develop breast cancer in the UAE generally do so at least a decade earlier than women in the West, a 2010 study found. And breast cancer is the second highest cause of death for women in Abu Dhabi. So where's the sense of urgency?

Authorities have taken steps to encourage women to undergo medical screening, which doctors say increases the chances of successful treatment when the disease is detected.

Yet recent reports show that too many women are still reluctant to have the screening. And as The National reported yesterday, of the women who do have an initial test and are asked to come back for more tests, up to 20 per cent fail to show up.

"You need more tests" can be an ominous phrase, but the reluctance to continue medical consultation is puzzling. Doctors have highlighted possible reasons for such reluctance: some women do not want to know if they have cancer. Some have the incorrect perception that cancer equals death and it is incurable. This is a doubly sad misconception, in that the whole point of screening is to identify the disease early, which in many cases means that treatment can open the way to a long life.

Clearly more investigation is needed, and urgently, to help doctors and health officials understand why so many shun follow-up tests when they are indicated. Are there cultural reasons? Is access to tests difficult or inconvenient? Are there other factors?

Women who do not take the tests often cite long waiting times, the lack of flexibility in scheduling for working women and lack of trust in health practitioners' ability to discern the disease. Some, particularly expatriates from western countries, wait until they travel home to take the tests.

Last month, experts in Dubai said patients needing breast cancer surgery may have to be treated by non-specialist surgeons, due to a gap in medical licensing standards. That problem should be addressed.

Another issue is that the treatment is not covered by most insurance plans for expatriates. Emirati women between 40 and 69 are required to undergo breast-cancer screening to renew their health insurance policies. The same should apply to non-nationals.

More specialists, awareness campaigns and specialised centres for testing would all help to reduce fear and save lives.