The pink spotlight


OCTOBER is recognized globally as Breast Cancer Awareness month. And around the world, it is commemorated with a pink ribbon.

According to several medical resources, breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women around the world, as well as in the Philippines. While the five-year survival rate for breast cancer warriors living in the West is about 99 percent, in the Philippines it is only about 55 percent. This is primarily due to inadequate breast screening, or none at all.

Let’s admit it. No one likes visiting doctors. Women especially would rather suffer and sacrifice in silence whatever pain we feel in our bodies (or minds), rather than seek medical attention. Even in urban areas like Metro Manila, the unfortunate sectors in our society who are hard pressed to make ends meet, will only consult a doctor when they feel really sick and are unable to work. Or, their symptoms have become too obvious that their other family members practically force them to see a doctor. By then, it may be too late.

Certainly, Filipinas in general are also too timid to consult with a doctor when it comes to our reproductive system. Unless pregnant, we don’t bother going to an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN). Which is clearly distressing, since a regular medical checkup such as a physical breast exam, mammogram or breast ultrasound, plus pap smear are so important in the early detection of cancer and other ailments afflicting the female body.

A number of OB-GYNs I know recommend a checkup once girls become sexually active. Aside from a physical exam, general counseling may be provided by the OB-GYN to protect the girls from unwanted pregnancies, for one. The doctor can prescribe the birth control method appropriate to their age, physical condition, and, yes, even religious beliefs.

(Back in the day, those of us who were of a liberal bent would rely on our friends or any available medical literature on what birth-control pill to take. And I must admit, the only time I began consulting an OB-GYN was when I felt an excruciating pain in my side, which caused me to blackout. I was in my early 30s then and it turned out I had a misbehaving ovarian cyst and endometriosis that caused me debilitating periods. By the way, that’s another reason women need to visit an OB-GYN regularly—wrenching pain in the puson during one’s time of the month is not “normal”, as we have been led to believe.)

Yes, a trip to the OB-GYN can be unpleasant. I often devote a day for such a visit, then pig out on a tasty meal as a “reward” afterwards. It is not just physically distressing but can be mentally taxing as well, since it is coupled by some irrational fear the doctor might find a problem with our girl parts. (Think of your exhausting Zoom meetings, and multiply that by 30.)

For the initial exam, the doctor will first try feel any possible hardening of your breast tissue or some unexplained mass. Then you’re off for an ultrasound or mammogram, or both, depending on your OB-GYN’s preference. Every time I have a mammogram, I have to go into a semi-meditative zone and steel myself to focus on one singular idea—the procedure is necessary and may save my life.

The monstrous machine will squeeze the breast to flatten it somewhat, and because it is in an unnatural shape, it will hurt. Fortunately it lasts just about three to five minutes, depending how quick the technician is with her fingers on the controls. The ultrasound is less of a bother—all you have to do is lie down on an exam table, then the technician will use the wand to get images of your breast. Your doctor will recommend an ultrasound when the mammogram doesn’t show up the mass or hardening she may have detected in your physical breast exam.

Since you’re already at your OB-GYN for a breast exam, get a pap smear as well. That too, can be a terribly upsetting procedure. A woman will open her legs wide, put them in stirrups, while the doctor inserts a cold, steel speculum to slightly widen the patient’s vagina. This helps the doctor peer into a woman’s internal reproductive organs, like the uterus and ovaries.

Afterwards, the OB-GYN will insert two fingers—gloved and smeared with a lubricating gel—in the patient’s vagina, and with her other hand press on the patient’s abdomen, checking for growths or some tenderness. After this, she will insert a swab to get tissue samples from the woman’s cervix, again to check for any changes.

The entire visit will probably take an hour or three, if you include the waiting time for the doctor or the medical procedures, but, yes, it will always leave an indelible mark on one’s emotional and mental state. Still, this should not scare you, ladies, from getting a checkup. When you get a clean bill of health from your OB-GYN, it will be cause for an immense joyful celebration. And if she does find a problem, then it’s better to know what we are dealing with and take the necessary steps to beat it.

Thinking pink is not just about raising awareness about breast cancer. It is also about protesting against poor health, medical misinformation, and dismantling the same old structures that keep women “in their place,” unable to access adequate health care. Every day should be a pink day.

Image courtesy of Angiola Harry on Unsplash

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