When it comes to breast cancer detection, time is crucial. This she knows personally after losing a family member to the disease. Had it been caught on time, her cousin would have had treatment options.
So she decided to do something about it. It may not be the first of its kind in the country, but the breast care unit opened by Dr Lusanda Jonas in Polokwane is special to her and her community.
They are all about saving lives.
Dr Jonas says if statistics are anything to go by, breast cancer awareness should be taken more seriously by authorities.
“Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, it is the most common cancer worldwide and the third most common cause of cancer related deaths in South Africa. Those statistics tell us that we should be hearing about breast cancer everywhere from radio programmes to newspapers and soapies too. We need more awareness campaigns, not just in urban areas or on breast cancer awareness month,” she says.
Her unit, Breastic, is at Netcare Pholoso Hospital in Polokwane.
“Our mission is to not only focus on treating breast cancer, but also to educate and do screenings too. We want people to know that early detection does improve the outcome and the problem with breast cancer is that is not painful.
“A problem in the black community is that if something is not painful, no matter how unusual it is, people do not seek medical help. A woman with a sore breast is more likely to seek help than a woman with a lump in her breast that is not painful. Then by the time she does seek medical treatment, very often the cancer has spread.”
She says it is important for them not only look at a breast cancer patient in isolation, if they have daughters, they must be monitored too because the cancer may run in the family.
“We then advise on what treatment actions need to be taken and we do a lot of breast conservation surgery. Very often people are afraid to seek treatment because they are scared of losing their breast. But over the years, there has been a lot of advancement in management and approach to breast cancer.
“Our aim is to get to a point where all the specialists a patient needs to see are all under one roof. Then the patient does not need to go home and make multiple appointments,” she says.
Dr Jonas says the screenings allow them to identify lumps and assess which of those are high risk.
“Not every lump is cancer,” she explains.
“Having said that, every lump must be followed up. By following up, we will be able to determine whether it is high risk or not. A lot of women get lost in the system. Sometimes they find a lump, get told it is not cancer and they never return, only to find out it was a high-risk lump that had to be monitored.”
She is not only doing this because of her medical skills and knowledge, but she has a deeper connection to breast cancer. She lost a relative to breast cancer.
Her cousin died aged 39 after waiting too long to seek medical attention.
“She was the kind of cousin we all looked up to. She taught us all sorts of things from how to wear make up, to how to be brave and stand up for yourself. She was 37 years old when she was initially diagnosed, and it had already spread.
“There was a lot of denial on her part, and she thought it was a spiritual attack that she could pray away, but it wasn’t. In the end there was not much doctors could do for her except tell the family to just keep her comfortable.”
She says sometimes people’s belief systems deter them from getting the medical help they need.
“Some think it is spiritual and others think it is ancestral, and I do not have any issues with people believing in what they do, I just wish they would also take the pills their doctors prescribe. Taking medication does not mean you lack faith and believing in a higher power also does not mean you cannot get sick.
“Even when I doing rotations during my training, I was always intrigued by the breast in its entirety. Also I believe losing my cousin influenced me a lot because looking back I wish I could have done more for her and so now my dream is for women to get as much information about breast cancer as possible because it does not have to be fatal,” she adds.