Breast Cancer Explained in the Indian Context


The panelists with the Board of the IACAN, Board of AVT Seva and several guests after the end of the seminar. Photos: Bijay Dixit

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: The Indian American Cancer Network had its latest session this past Sunday afternoon, October 20 in conjunction with Volunteering Together for Service to present the latest information on breast cancer. The session was most appropriate as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and hundreds of people across the country are walking around with pink ribbon furls pinned to their clothes or wearing pink to mark the event.

IACAN President Kanchan Kabad speaks before the start of the seminar on breast cancer last Sunday, October 20 at the Ashtalakshmi Temple.

IACAN President Kanchan Kabad speaks before the start of the seminar on breast cancer last Sunday, October 20 at the Ashtalakshmi Temple.

The session was held in the large hall off the main sanctuary of the Ashtalakshmi Temple on Synott Road and about 40 people attended the session that featured panelists Dr. Tamara Ortiz-Perez, an Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and specialist in Breast Cancer; Dr. Polly Niravath, Assistant Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine’s Lester & Sue Smith Breast Cancer Center and Mona Bangia, a breast cancer survivor who has been in remission for the past three years. IACAN Board member Dr. Julie Nangia moderated the two-hour session.

Prior to the session, IACAN President Kanchan Kabad explained that the mission of the 4 year-old organization was to make sure that no Indian American will be alone on their journey with cancer treatment and to educate and disseminate information about the dreaded disease. She also gave details of the South Asian Health Needs Assessment survey that the group has been conducting at different venues across the city since its launch in August to collect data that would allow applying for funding and other benefits to accrue towards the South Asian community (see IAN August 16, 2013). Out of the 1,500 respondents needed for the survey, about 500 have been collected so far.

Dr. Aparna Tamarisa, the daughter of long-time Houstonian gynecologist Dr. Chari Tamarisa gave a short video presentation on Volunteering Together for Service or VT Seva, the group she is actively involved with which works in India with the visually impaired, educating the rural population for free, providing healthcare and environment and disaster relief. Along with others in her group, she passed out canvas bags and mugs from VTSeva’s partnership with United Airlines EcoSkies program.

Dr. Ortiz-Perez explained the statistics of breast cancer occurrence and survival rates as well as the ways to test for it, which include a physical exam, mammography, ultrasound and MRIs. Mammograms had a sensitivity of 70 to 90 per cent detection and 50 per cent with denser breasts. Cancer rates increase with age to 60 to 80 per cent for women between the ages of 50 and 69. If cancer is found, two types of biopsies – fine needle and core needle guided by ultrasound help in confirming the diagnosis. She explained that the amount of radiation in dose therapy treatments usually is one-tenth of the radiation that normally falls on Earth.

Dr. Niravath focused in on the other factors that can contribute to the incidence of breast cancer and the treatments that can be followed. Contributors include obesity, lack of physical activity, alcohol intake, hormonal therapy, a family history, age and race. She noted that Indians tended to increase their risk after migrating to the US, which she theorized had much to do lifestyles like less walking and diet. She counseled that changes in these lifestyle habits could help reduce the risk as well as increase in folic acid intake. Women who breast-fed longer had lower incidences of breast cancer. Treatments differed with the types of breast cancer found and ranged from chemotherapy and radiation before proceeding with lumpectomy to mastectomy. Some hormonal therapy that blocked estrogen was sometimes beneficial.

The last speaker was Mona Bangia who chose to speak about her diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 56 four years ago. She recalled how she first got word of it when she was on vacation in Denver and how her family and friends became a support group to help her through the treatment that resulted in a mastectomy and removal of the affected lymph nodes in her right arm. The former 30-year Worldwide SAP Technical Lead for Hewlett-Packard found the determination to develop a compression stocking to reduce the resulting swelling of that arm and also a vest  when the ones available on the local stores did not work, She dedicated herself to having a prototype and later a manufacturing line made in her native India and has set about marketing it in India where most people had never heard of the compression vests, and in the US, to other cancer survivors.  “I would like to do a seminar in India”, she said, “to show people that they can have a life, just like I did, even after having cancer”,

The seminar elicited many questions from the audience regarding many misconceptions about causes of breast cancer. Dr. Chari Tamarisa threw out the hypothesis from his years of experience in OB-GYN that the lack of use of an organ contributed to the onset of cancer, giving the example of cows udders, which he said, normally never develop the disease, as a way to emphasize that long duration breast feeding to reduce the possibility of having breast cancer.