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Preventive treatment key to fighting breast cancer

Regular screening can detect signs of breast cancer (Southeast Missouri hospital) Photo Southeast Missouri hospital

More than 3,000 cancer specialists from 74 countries have gathered in the Swiss city of St Gallen to discuss new ways of winning the battle against breast cancer.

This content was published on March 12, 2003 - 13:54

The conference, which kicked off on Wednesday, comes at a time when the number of breast cancer cases in industrialised countries is on the rise, but mortality rates are dropping.

Cancer experts say the main reason for the fall is the increased use of preventive medicine.

Preventive treatment works in two ways: firstly, screening on a regular basis to ensure early detection of breast tumours; and secondly, administering radiation treatment and anti-cancer drugs after operations to remove tumours.

The Breast Cancer Conference, which is held on a biennial basis, is expected to focus on how to raise awareness of existing treatments and to improve patient access to preventive health care.

Conference organisers say that although preventive treatments have proved effective in a number of countries, there is not a common practice of encouraging or administering preventive medicine to breast cancer patients across the globe.

Regular screenings

Hans-Jürg Senn, director of the Institute for Cancer Detection and Prevention and organiser of this year's conference, says countries such as Switzerland, Germany and a number of Asian countries are particularly bad at encouraging regular screenings.

Women in the United States and United Kingdom, in particular, have mammograms as a matter of routine.

"These countries are very good at treating breast cancer and put a lot of money into it," he told swissinfo. "But there is a barrier against preventing it; this is mainly a socio-cultural problem."

In Switzerland and Germany, he said, there is a particular reticence about exposure to radiation during screenings. Yet in Switzerland alone around 1,600 women die each year from breast cancer.

Post-operative care

Senn says improving post-operative treatment could also save more lives.

"At this conference we are focusing on better treatment; not just doing surgery and letting women go home and waiting for a relapse, but giving the right drugs at the right time to prevent relapse, early recurrence and death," he said.

While the conference hopes to encourage more countries to take up a wider range of preventive care, organisers say delegates must also address the high costs of treatment.

The use of preventive drugs coupled with radiation treatment has contributed to the fall in the number of deaths from relapses in those countries that have introduced it.

But Senn says the benefits of a wider range of preventive care have to be set against the strain this is putting on hospital budgets.

"This is an awfully complicated affair," Senn said. "It's also an expensive affair, because it makes treatment which was simpler in the past more complex."

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin and Joanne Shields

Cancer summary

While cases of breast cancer are rising in Western and industrialised countries, the mortality rate in these countries is dropping.

The main reason for the drop in deaths from breast cancer is the rise in preventive treatment, including regular screening, post-operative drugs and radiation treatment.

But some countries, including Switzerland and Germany, are falling behind other countries in the administration of preventive treatment, although they rank highly in treating the cancer once diagnosed.

The St Gallen Breast Cancer Conference opened on Wednesday and will focus on how to improve preventive care across the globe.

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