Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Breast cancer in developing countries

Cancers don't make top-ten lists of causes of death in poor countries, but that is because even larger numbers of people are killed by infections like diarrhea and TB. Make no mistake, those countries' cancer rates are high, and climbing. (The reasons for rising cancer rates are still unclear. Some think that nocturnal light as a byproduct of development is partly to blame.)

One of the worst offenders is breast cancer, now being called a worldwide epidemic at over a million new cases a year. I spoke last summer with Dr. Fred Okuku, a Ugandan physician who was at Yale learning medical techniques which he later took back to his own country. He told me that 95% of Ugandan women with breast cancer already have Stage IV disease when diagnosed. They notice a lump, then wait an average of two years before seeking treatment. As a result, many patients in Uganda recapitulate the terrible natural history of cancers with a thoroughness most Western doctors haven't seen in many decades. Okuku returned home with a mammography van and an ultrasound machine to try to change the grim statistics. (His colleagues there are well aware of the challenge and have risen to meet it: read on.)

What do doctors have to offer breast cancer patients in low-resource settings? What guidelines are available to those doctors? Which organizations are thinking about this?

Breast Health Global Initiative: Their 2008 Guideline implementation for breast healthcare in low-income and middle-income countries looks to be practical and comprehensive. They certainly know the need for such a guideline: "In high-resource countries, evidence-based guidelines...are resource neutral, they fail to consider variable resource distributions where overall standards of living are high, and they fail to recognize ubiquitous deficits in infrastructure and resources in LMCs. Moreover, they do not consider implementation costs or provide guidance on how a suboptimal system can be improved incrementally toward an optimal system. Such guidelines defining optimal breast care and services...have limited use in resource-constrained countries, and there is a need for resource-based guidance related to strategies for reducing the burden of breast cancer for settings in which optimal care is not feasible." 

Breast Surgery International: a group of surgeons interested in breast cancer in developing countries. Their 2002 paper is a summary of the breast cancer situation in Malaysia, South Africa, and Nigeria. It stops short of offering firm clinical guidelines. 

The Uganda Cancer Working Group, a group of Ugandan physicians based at Makarere Medical School in Kampala (Fred Okuku's school) in 2008 published a second edition of a set of guidelines for managing breast cancer in that country. (The first edition, report the authors, was well-received and heavily cited.) Interestingly, these guidelines emphasize breast self-examination while acknowledging that such measures are no longer being pushed in developing countries. What works in one context does not necessarily work in another.

Non-free journal articles on this topic include a set of guidelines from Stanford physicians, a review of treatment trends in the Arab world from the American University of Beirut, and a discussion of breast-conservation strategies in the developing world from Banaras Hindu University. Those with access to Breast Journal can find a number of relevant articles, including an article analyzing testimonials from patients in limited-resource countries which found several themes: "1) the experiences and fears of breast cancer survivors, 2) beliefs and taboos about breast cancer that hinder awareness programs and treatment, 3) the need for public education and breast cancer awareness programs in countries with limited resources, 4) difficulty in translating the concept and ethos of advocacy into many languages, and 5) the experiences in establishing and maintaining advocacy groups to promote breast cancer awareness and to inform public policy."

1 comment:

  1. This is a terrific idea for a blog - a kind of clearinghouse, an opinionated and well-written one, for low-resource medicine.