Breast cancer is still the most common cancer in Maltese women, but lung cancer will overtake it in the next few years, Health Minister Louis Deguara told the annual Hilda Schembri Memorial Lecture.
“In spite of our intensive anti-smoking campaigns and legislation our young female generation is increasingly taking up smoking for a number of reasons, foremost among which is the belief that the habit helps them reduce weight,” he said.
As elsewhere in the world breast cancer was a major cause of concern to many women. It is the commonest cause of death from cancer in women, with the majority of women being between 50-69 years when diagnosed.
“When one looks at the trends in incidence or the number of new cases of female breast cancer presented, this appears to be on the increase. The number has in fact increased from 207 cases in 1997 to 245 cases for 2005. This is partly due to the increased life expectancy but also due to greater awareness resulting in more cases being detected, not necessarily at an early stage,” Dr Deguara said.
The public needed to be informed that breast cancer was curable if detected early. Investing in the education of women about breast cancer would encourage them to seek medical care earlier in the disease process and this would result in a decrease in both morbidity and mortality.
The Breast Care Unit originally set up in June 2000 was now well established. It offered a multidisciplinary service coordinated by three nurses with experience in dealing with patients with breast disease. The role of the breast care nurses is to ensure continuity of patient care and supporting patients throughout the care process.
As awareness of breast disease has increased, the demand on the Breast Care Clinic has trebled over the last seven years. Currently every week an average of 20 new cases and 50-60 follow up cases are seen at the clinic. While all efforts are made to reduce waiting time, those patients with symptoms or signs indicative of breast cancer are given priority, so that the waiting time in these cases is minimal. Indeed any suspicious case is seen to and investigated within 24 hours. Similarly the demand for mammograms has also increased. St Luke’s Hospital continues to increase the number of mammograms performed each year. During 2006, 4,219 mammograms were carried out, that is an 8.3 per cent increase over the previous year.
The creation of a full time breast surgeon post has also been a positive recent development. Again the very recent return to Malta of two qualified radiologists only last week should enable us to venture into a screening programme targeting the highest risk group between the ages of 50 to 60. These professionals are now also expected to carry out those invasive diagnostic procedures which improve correct early diagnosis to enhance better outcomes.
Introducing the very latest medicines not only for breast cancer treatment was a challenge which they were actively addressing in the context of the challenge of sustainability. “Our drug bill has shot up from around Lm6 million 10 years ago to a staggering Lm24 million this year,” Dr Deguara said.