Exclusive Commentary: Breast Cancer in Africa

Millions of African women may have a breast mass that could lead to cancer but do not feel a need to seek care.

Despite Ebola dominating the global health news, we must not forget other health conditions. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. During the month, we have seen breast cancer events and advocacy in the US featured prominently in the media. However, there has been limited attention drawn to the fact that breast cancer is a global problem.

In August, I and fellow researchers published a study on breast mass prevalence in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. The study in the Journal of Surgical Oncology found that 3.3% of women in Sierra Leone and 4.6% in Rwanda had an untreated breast mass. Although only 20% of breast masses in the US are cancerous, it is recommended that all breast masses be evaluated as breast cancer diagnosed and treated early can be cured.

An extrapolation to the entire population of these countries could mean more than 150,000 cases in Sierra Leone and more than half a million in Rwanda. This also probably translates into millions of women throughout the rest of Africa and possibly other low-income countries. The primary reason women reported for not seeking care was that they did not feel the mass was a problem.

The lack of awareness of health conditions among women in the developing world—and especially about breast disease—is an important issue. While the pink ribbon is a recognized symbol in the US, additional resources and efforts are needed to highlight the needs for breast cancer awareness in the developing world.

—Adam L. Kushner, MD, MPH, is an associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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