Fri | Jun 5, 2020

Cancer in the young - Dread, socio-economic challenges cause Jamaicans to shy away from cancer screening

Published:Wednesday | October 2, 2019 | 12:20 AM

Fifty-five-year-old Janet Scott*, a housekeeper from Old Harbour, St Catherine, has never done a mammogram, although she is fully aware that she is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, given her family history. Her mother died from the disease when Janet was only 12 years old.

“I’m very interested in doing the test, but I never get around to doing it. Some of my sisters have done it,” she said, although she adds that she does a Pap smear regularly.

“I’ll get the test done in October,” she promised.

The low level of compliance to cancer screening within the Jamaican population is the contributing factor to the majority of local cancer cases being metastatic, or advanced at presentation, noted Yulit Gordon, executive director of the Jamaica Cancer Society (JCS).

She was speaking during a #JNPowerofPink think tank session late last week titled ‘Beyond Breast Cancer’, held at the JN Financial Services Centre in New Kingston. It was the first of a three-part series of conversations to observe October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“We face many barriers to screening,” Gordon said, citing fear and socio-economic challenges as the main reasons for persons being hesitant to do cancer screening.

She stated that persons are fearful of doing the examination, the results of the tests, the treatment, and the adverse effects related to the treatment. She added that the exorbitant costs to treat cancer and the absence of health insurance to alleviate the financial burden pose major challenges for many persons.

“Early detection delivers on the best outcome for cancer patients and saves the families money,” Gordon emphasised, while adding that regular screening detects abnormalities early before they progress to cancer.


Pointing to statistics provided by the Global Cancer Observatory, Gordon said that of the 7,349 new cancer cases diagnosed in Jamaica last year, breast cancer accounted for 13.3 per cent, while the mortality figures for breast cancer stood at 413 for the same period.

“Approximately 60 per cent of the breast cancer cases diagnosed in Jamaica are among women between age 25 and 59 years, which tends to mean that it is a more aggressive form of breast cancer,” Gordon disclosed.

She further revealed that of the approximately 7,000 women who did mammography screenings last year, 30 per cent were referred for further investigation.


Senator Dr Saphire Longmore, consultant psychiatrist and breast cancer survivor, who was also a panellist, urged women, especially those with busy lifestyles, to make time to do cancer screening.

“When something like cancer rears its head, every single member in that family is affected, and if we lose that critical person in that woman, it is not just a loss of a woman but it is the loss of an entire family structure and a survival capacity of every member of that family. No matter what you’re doing, find the time to take care of you,” she maintained.

The situation is particularly urgent, Gordon stressed, because the age at which many women are developing breast cancer appears to be younger. Pointing to a recent survey conducted by JCS and The University of the West Indies, it found that the median age for women diagnosed with breast cancer in Jamaica is 52 years old.

“This is eight years younger than the global average, which is 60 years old,” she said. “That is why we cannot overemphasise the importance of education among our population; and for us to start having the conversation with our young women and men at the university level, or even earlier.”

Dr Longmore, a former beauty queen and medical practitioner, herself was diagnosed in her 30s; while moderator of the forum and psychologist, Kamala McWhinney, was diagnosed shortly after turning 30.

“This is why it is so essential to get the message to women that early screening is important, and that screening should be done, in my estimation, as soon as their mammary glands begin to develop,” she advised. “It is important to be vigilant about what’s happening in the breast tissue, because younger and younger women are being diagnosed.”

Other panellists for the session were Dr André Williams, integrative oncologist; Dr Beverly Wright, director, Health Systems Support and Monitoring Unit, Ministry of Health and Wellness; Carolind Graham, chairman, Jamaica Reach for Recovery; and Dr Damian Ffriend, senior manager, JN Life Insurance Company.

Power of Pink is an initiative of the JN Group, now in its second year. It is geared to support the efforts of the JCS to increase awareness of the importance of early cancer detection, to empower survivors, and pay homage to those who have lost the battle.