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Talk Cancer: Meet Volunteers of Snehita

Every October is observed as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As per the estimates of the World Health Organisation (WHO), 6,27,000 women died of breast cancer in 2018. In Kerala, 31 per cent of cases detected in women are related to breast cancer. According to official data, 5000 new cases are recorded every year in the

Every October is observed as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As per the estimates of the World Health Organisation (WHO), 6,27,000 women died of breast cancer in 2018. In Kerala, 31 per cent of cases detected in women are related to breast cancer. According to official data, 5000 new cases are recorded every year in the State. But even in the face of such alarming statistics, there is a silver lining. Early detection of breast cancer provides one with a fair shot at early and effective treatment. But how to go about an early detection, where and when to go would be doubts that arise in every woman’s mind. That is where Snehita Women’s Health Foundation comes in.

This October, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, meet volunteers of a not-for-profit called Snehita. Technopark employees on weekdays and Snehitas on weekends, these women are using their time to help bust myths associated with breast cancer and provide guidance for conducting breast self-exam, screenings and check-ups.

Based in Thiruvananthpuram, the voluntary not-for-profit group has members conducting door-to-door awareness sessions to clear doubts and answer queries regarding breast cancer. Technopark alone has many active volunteers, called Snehitas, from the group. For them, every weekend this October is already lined up with awareness sessions and screening camps around the capital.

Started in May 2016, Snehita has till date completed more than 40 camps, 4000 screenings, and more than 15 women were detected with breast cancer at an early stage. “On an average it takes five to seven years for a mutated cell to become a one-centimetre lump in the breast. Any person (volunteer) can be trained to feel a lump in the breast and detect it at an earlier stage than the patient herself. The volunteer would then refer the patient to expert doctors who would be able to diagnose whether the lump is cancer or not. Through Snehita, our aim is to train people who can help others. People can come, talk and do the examination at Snehita’s clinic free of cost,” said Dr. Regi Jose, Founder and Medical Director, Snehita and Professor of Community Medicine at Sree Gokulam Medical College. It was frequent observations by Dr. Regi’s husband Dr. Paul Augustine, Additional Professor, Surgical Oncology, Regional Cancer Centre about the number of young women who lost their lives to cancer because of late detection that prompted her to form Snehita.

Sindhu C, Senior Test Analyst, UST Global, and Programme Manager with Snehita, recalls how her association with the group began, “Technopark had conducted a blood donation camp along with a breast cancer screening session during Women’s Day in March 2017, a year after Snehita was formed. Our association with Snehita started with that camp.” Sindhu, who handles the group’s social media accounts, recently attended the World Cancer Congress in Malaysia with Dr. Regi. The Congress, organised by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), was an eye-opener for Sindhu who received insights on improving programmes under Snehita. “We also got some collaborators who will visit and share their experiences,” she said.

Bindu Meher, Learning Consultant to UST Global, and Karthika Gopinath are the other members who got involved with Snehita after attending a camp held at Technopark the same year. The members of Snehita come from all walks of life and they include former and present heads of healthcare institutions, other professionals and homemakers.

“More people should come forward to share their experiences and help other patients in whatever way possible,” Bindu said, adding that cancer cannot be treated as a taboo anymore. Being a cancer survivor herself, she should know. Bindu often uses her experience of having beaten cancer twice as a way to bond with women who come for the camps, the anxiety apparent on their faces.

“Many people feel that they are immune to cancer and it will not affect them. Ideally, one should consider getting a clinical breast examination done periodically once they cross 30 years of age,” she noted. “We tend to ignore the lumps and heaviness in the breasts – the symptoms of breast cancer in the beginning, if ignored, can be fatal. It is through Snehita that we hope to reach the maximum number of women,” said Karthika Gopinath, another volunteer.

Chithra Gopinathan Nair, who works with UST Global and is the treasurer at Snehita, began to associate with the group from its early days. It was while accompanying her mother in-law for a consultation with Dr. Regi’s husband Dr. Paul, that her journey with Snehita began. The doctor introduced Chithra to the group. Breast, cervix, oral cavity and colorectal are four types of cancers which can be cured if detected early. Unfortunately, by the time women consider getting medical help, the cancer would have advanced.

“At RCC itself, breast cancer detected in 40 per cent women would have reached their third or fourth stages by which time treatment may not produce the desired result. If the cancer is detected in patients at stages one or two, to a large extent they stand the chance of being saved from breast removal.

“I will not say that early examination of breasts can completely prevent cancer. But in over 95 per cent cases, detection at the right time can cure the disease with proper surgery and less difficult treatment,” Dr. Regi said. “We are especially keen on the presence of young women at these awareness camps as there is an increasing risk of breast cancer among them. Six to seven per cent of breast cancer is detected in women who are aged below 35 years,” she notes.

Yet another active member with Snehita, Gayathri Janardanan, Executive Assistant to Country Head, Finastra, said, “After the formation of Snehita, many women know whom to approach when they have a medical problem. There have been instances where the house keeping staff of my company have approached me for medical assistance, people who otherwise would not have known how to proceed further for cancer treatment.”

Camps are conducted for women from all walks of life, from residential areas within the city like Kowdiar to those in coastal areas such as Vizhinjam. However, volunteering in many locations has brought Gayatri to realise that it is women in the coastal areas who are more open to clinical screenings than their urban counterparts. “We find that they are more cooperative. One needs to undress partially during the screening process and in spite of the assured privacy, many women, be it at Technopark or other areas in the city, are hesitant to do so,” she said.

“Initially, I thought most techies would be hesitant to come forward, but the response has been encouraging,” Dr. Regi said. Lily Antony, Project Manager, Kernox Learning Systems, agreed, adding that the number of requests for Snehita to hold camps in other parts of the city has also increased.

Snehita also has male volunteers who provide technical support. Sreekanth S associated with Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) heads the IT wing of Snehita. He takes care of the technical aspects apart from media relations and also played a vital role in making Snehita’s Breast Cancer Risk Assessment tool available online for the public.

A WhatsApp group created for announcing camp dates and updating about activities helps the Snehitas plan their schedules in advance and make time for volunteering at the sessions. Snehita has been incidental in detecting cancer at an early stage in 12 women. They have also been cured and some of the women have returned to serve as volunteers at Snehita.

Many Snehitas share the same thought. “Breast cancer rates among the youth are on the rise in Kerala, especially in the IT fraternity. This issue needs to be addressed at the earliest so that treatment becomes easier,” they say.

Snehitas On Duty

The services that Snehita offers include breast awareness (teaching breast self-examination) at the group’s clinic in Jainagar near Medical College, apart from screening camps and awareness sessions. The term screening refers to testing persons without any symptoms (normal individuals) for the detection of occult disease. Screenings are conducted on weekday evenings and Saturday mornings at the clinic. Prior appointment will be an advantage. Screening means looking for cancer in the patient before she has developed any symptoms. The cancer may have further spread by the time symptoms appear. If a lump has not been detected in someone during the first screening, it does not mean that it may not develop in the future.

During camps, volunteers help to create breast awareness and motivate women to adopt screening regularly. The camps are aimed at removing misconceptions associated with cancer, particularly breast cancer. Awareness sessions on other health issues related to women are also held.

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