How Lebanese Women Can Save Their Lives

Almost a year ago, my October turned pink as my mother got news that she had breast cancer. After the initial shock of the matter subsides, you’re left with one of two options: you either think rationally and fight or succumb to your emotions and crumble. It was a tough year, that’s for sure. My mom wasted away because of the chemo. She lost her hair, vomited anything she’d eat. But she’s getting better now.

My mom, however, is not your typical breast cancer patient: she doesn’t have a family history that would cause anyone to be more vigilant. The other risk factors associated with breast cancer do not apply in her case. And yet, there she was getting a needle stuck in her central IV line. My mother fell through the statistical cracks of medicine, like so many other people out there.

October may be breast cancer awareness month but I figured I’d shed some light on other cancers that aren’t discussed often and which might be prevented with some careful attention.

Breast Cancer:

I’m especially happy at the response I got after writing about my mother’s diagnosis, with many readers coming up to me to tell me that they got their mother to go get tested as well and they’re relieved she has nothing or, in the case of some unlucky few, had a very early stage of the disease. A lot of research and money has gone into breast cancer. We’re at a stage, medically, where early detection is almost synonymous with cure.

Early detection happens by personal observation first and foremost. If you feel any difference in the shape of your breast or any odd sensation that wasn’t there before, make sure you consult a gynecologist who will do a breast exam. Don’t worry, though, the exam is not painful. It consists of very careful inspection of the breast for any masses as well as how any potential mass might be affecting shape, texture, etc.

Seeing as October is free mammography month, there’s absolutely no reason for every woman aged 40 and above not to get one. If you have a family history of breast cancer, mammographies should have started by age 30-35. The sad part is that despite mammographies being either free or at a greatly reduced price during October, Lebanon’s medical community has had trouble in getting the message to some sectors of Lebanese women.

Make sure the women you know get tested this month. Make sure you haven’t had any changes. They might sound like small steps but they can go a long way in saving the lives of the women you love.

Cervical cancer:

The thing about cervical cancer is that there’s a quick screening method for it called a pap smear. It’s recommended to do the pap smear annually until you’re 30, with the test starting preferably by the age of 21. It’s a screening exam so it cannot give you a diagnosis.

The other thing about cervical cancer is that there’s a vaccine which could cut your risk of getting it by about 90%. Why so? Because the main causative agent of the cancer is a virus that’s called HPV, which is acquired by sexual intercourse. It’s preferable  to get the vaccine prior to your first sexual relation. However, even if you have had a sexual relation without taking the vaccine, you can still take it and have your risk reduced dramatically.

A lot of Lebanese women don’t take the vaccine or do a pap smear for the following reasons:

  • They believe it’s a taboo to take a vaccine for something that’s related to sex,
  • The vaccine itself is quite expensive, especially since doctors charge quite a hefty sum to administer it,
  • Many women don’t trust vaccines to begin with,
  • Having a gynecologist is, to many, only a matter that should happen after marriage.

The HPV vaccine, however, has proven itself to be very efficient. With its introduction into the medical field, cervical cancer deaths have drastically decreased. So in case you haven’t taken the vaccine or done a pap smear yet, consider this a sign that you should do so.

Ovarian Cancer:

Ovarian cancer is sometimes called the silent killer of women. It’s currently the leading cause of gynecological cancer deaths among women. It’s so inconspicuous that its diagnosis usually happens at a very advanced stage, when the disease has already metastasized. Less than 20% of women survive an advanced stage of some types of ovarian cancer. This cancer metastasizes to the lungs, liver, bowels, among other organs. The operation required to resect and manage the spread is considered a marathon and often only buys a little time for treatment, which is usually very harsh.

Ovarian cancer doesn’t have screening methods or vaccines. It requires you to be vigilant. A yearly visit to your gynecologist who does a pelvic examination should suffice. If there’s any suspicion, your physician will order an ultrasound to guide any possible diagnosis.

Your Life Matters:

My mother, like many other women, took her health way too lightly. She paid the price for it. Don’t let that happen to you or the ones you love because your health and life matter. There are other types of gynecological cancers than the aforementioned that affect women. The common denominator is not to treat any sign that your body might be telling you lightly, not to have a sense of immortality or denial imprinted on you despite all forms of common sense and, most importantly, not to so shy as to no seek out a gynecologist for any possible reason. On the contrary, make sure you find a gynecologist who proves to be the best fit for you, with whom you can be comfortable and with whom you feel free to discuss whatever’s making you worry.

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7 thoughts on “How Lebanese Women Can Save Their Lives

    • The concept of family medicine or primary care doesn’t exist here. So gynecologists do breast exams. Of course, surgeons and certain specialties can do them as well. It’s not difficult.

      Reply
  1. Hi Elie,

    Over here, women aged 50-75 are called up to have themselves checked every two years. The procedure is voluntary and for free and used by many. I know my mom does this every two years. This applies to both breast cancer and cervical cancer, on separate occasions if I recall correctly. The Flemish government in Belgium encourages women to have themselves checked with a similar program.

    On a slightly related note, my uncle died because of cancer many years ago. I remember I came home from a high school trip in France. Parents told me what was going and three weeks later he died.

    It’s good to raise awareness about this. Is cancer a “taboo” in Lebanon to talk about?

    All the best to your mother.

    Reply
    • We don’t have a healthcare system which provides such services to our people, let alone our women. The best thing I can think of as an example to that is the free mammographies that take place around this month. Many women, however, don’t do one despite the low cost.

      I’m very sorry about your uncle. I’m not sure if cancer is a “taboo” in the sense of how other taboos in Lebanese society deal with it. However, the older generations rarely refer to it by name. They call it “that disease.” But there are a lot of people who have it for it to remain hidden or kept on the down-low. It’s also heavy material for TV stations to talk about as it brings in viewers.

      Reply

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