Helen Martin: No magic bullet to breast cancer

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie
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IS it possible for charities to do too good a job in raising ­awareness, to be so active and generate so many reports and column inches that we all become over-familiar with the cause?

If so, breast cancer must be getting pretty close. And perhaps the only reason I can get away with saying that, is that I have had it, worn the T-shirt, flashed the pink ribbon and had the mastectomy.

I was extremely fortunate and didn’t need any chemotherapy or follow-up treatments other than a belt-and-braces five-year course of Tamoxifen.

So I was interested to hear that the same drug was now being offered as an alternative to preventative ­mastectomy for women at high risk of developing the disease. Certainly a double mastectomy, just in case you might go on to develop breast cancer, seems a bit drastic, so the more ­options the better.

What disturbed me though was the way it was reported as being a relatively simple solution. “A pill to prevent breast cancer”. Oh yes, the possible side effects were mentioned, but without full appreciation of what these might entail.

If you have had breast cancer, been through the surgery to put bits of you in the bucket, and are relying on Tamoxifen to prevent it coming back and spreading, these side effects seem minimal. Hot flushes, erratic hormonal behaviour and menopausal confusion are tame next to the chemo you might have required. Another possible side effect is cancer of the womb. That requires monitoring too and for me involved a couple of minor ops for biopsies along the way just to make sure that reducing the recurrence in one area hadn’t fired it up in another. Again, I was lucky, though I met one Edinburgh woman who went through the nightmare of developing womb cancer because of the treatment she’d received for breast cancer – Tamoxifen.

Charities have been very efficient in getting across the message that one in eight women will get breast cancer. In fact I’ve done my share of speaking to groups on that very ­subject. The problem is with public perception. We have a tendency to think that something so common must be preventable, and to think that modern medicine is an exact ­science of magic bullets and outright cures rather than an educated guess at best treatment on the basis of ­research and probabilities. The idea of a pill as an alternative to breast ­removal seems like a no-brainer.

Yet, knowing what I know now, and if I had been a suitable candidate, I can say without any doubt that I would have gone for surgery any day. That seems a ­simpler solution than being well and so far ­cancer-free, yet choosing to depend on a powerful drug that might help me stay that way or might simply cause cancer in another area not to mention playing havoc with my hormones and making me feel even slightly ill.

Who knows, but I imagine ­Angelina Jolie had the same options and chose the knife.

Keep the money coming in to those charities. There is still a very long way to go.

Agenda unfair to a gender

FEMALE workers at Dumfries and Galloway Council have won a landmark ruling from the Supreme Court in London giving women the right to the same pay as men doing a job of equal value. The Institute of Directors’ David Watt describes it as “a frightening judgement” and one that could seriously damage businesses.

Tough. They’ve had plenty of time to introduce equal pay. Some might close as a result and some jobs might be lost. But the alternative – letting them continue to exploit people – would simply facilitate an ongoing race to the bottom as far as employee rights are concerned, resulting in far worse damage to the economy.

Unclassy way to welcome the First Minister

COUNCILLORS in Aberdeen have asked for an investigation into Alex Salmond’s conduct because he breached child protection and security rules by taking up an invitation from a PTA member to pop into a local school and meet Primary 6 pupils – without the head teacher’s permission. What “risk” do they think he and his aides posed?

At worst it was a breach of polite protocol. Most head teachers would be delighted that their children had a chance to meet the First Minister, regardless of his political party. Can you imagine a headteacher in England being anything other than welcoming to an unexpected visit by the Prime Minister?

Plain speaking from Osborne

GEORGE Osborne has announced that out-of-work benefit payments will not be paid to those who cannot speak English, at least to the standard expected from nine-year-olds. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be able to work here if they can find a job where there’s an interpreter, or where some sort of sign language and pidgeon English is sufficient. But if someone can’t be bothered either to work or to learn English to give themselves the best chance of getting a job, why did they come here, if not to leech off the system?