As the global Breast Cancer Awareness month reaches its end, it’s vital to take a look at the situation regarding Greek women and the medical and social system they are faced with when they are diagnosed with the killer disease. Greek Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon Apostolos Mitrousias tells GCT that breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Greek women today, and has the highest mortality of any cancer. In 2018, more than 7,700 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in Greece; this comprises 28% of all cancers that affect Greek women. “The key is, obviously to do all we can for prevention of the disease,” Dr. Mitrousias emphasises, adding that it is critical that after the age of 40 and until the age of 75 women should have an annual breast check and mammogram. “If you catch it on time, it is a very treatable cancer,” he adds.
Dr. Mitrousias, who is also a military doctor, serving as a surgeon for the Hellenic Air Force, says he was drawn to specialising in oncoplastic surgery for breast cancer patients especially because of how much of a key difference plastic surgery can make to a patient’s life. “In the past, women may have had their entire breast removed just because a doctor detected a lump. Today we are better able to screen and importantly, there are so many more ways to treat the disease.”
“When a woman goes through breast cancer, it affects all areas of her life, including her psychology and sense of self, her identity as a woman,” Dr. Mitrousias continues. “Meanwhile like all cancers, when breast cancer hits it does not only affect the patient but their whole family and close circle. That’s why it’s important to help her in the best way possible to overcome the trauma of what she is facing - both psychologically, and through breast plastic surgery, physically. When breast cancer survivors have a breast restructuring via surgery and implants, they can go on with their lives and eventually even almost forget the pain and terror they may have faced. You’d be surprised to hear that I’ve spoken with women who a decade after their surgery can only remember the scar left from the surgery.”
One in eight women in Greece develop the disease until the age of 85, and an average of 20% of breast cancer cases occur in women younger than 50 years old. Meanwhile, 36% occur between 50–64 years old and the remaining cases in women above this age. Among the 28 European countries, Greece’s incidence and mortality rates are ranked 18th and 16th respectively. This incidence-to-mortality ratio reflects Greece’s relative acceptable effectiveness of cancer control. Between 1999 and 2007 the five-year relative survival increased throughout Europe for all cancer types. Medically, Greece has thus advanced significantly in breast cancer detection and treatment, but there are still aspects in the treatment of patients that need to be improved upon.
“When women come to me they are often extremely anxious and afraid of the meaning and consequences of facing breast cancer,” Dr. Mitrousias says. “And psychology is a critical aspect of dealing with cancer in the best possible way. In Greece we are still behind in this area - there are not enough support mechanisms set up yet for helping women go through their reality by offering support, encouragement, therapy. In other countries, there is an entire medical team comprised of surgeons as well as psychology experts.”
Awareness has certainly grown in Greece over the last decade via social media campaigns, events like the Pink Ribbon runs to raise awareness and other campaigns that are chiefly private initiatives. However, the state now offers an annual breast cancer screening test to women gratis as part of the national health insurance system.
Dr. Mitrousias too is very active in getting information out to the public nationwide about preventing and treating breast cancer. He offers talks at several events, conferences and through his own Facebook page Breast Aware, and his professional, as well as voluntary work, has earned him numerous distinctions and prizes throughout the years.
One of the projects he recently supported was the annual initiative by the American Women’s Organisation of Greece (AWOG), a dynamic, 70-year-old non-profit charity organisation at the Heart Pillow stuffing. This annual get-together involves volunteers who stuff heart-shaped pillows that are then donated to breast cancer patients to offer them a sense of physical comfort and emotional support, and Dr. Mitrousias attended the event to give a talk about the situation in Greece.
When I ask Dr. Mitrousias whether there are any top tips for preventing breast cancer, he repeats his original message that getting tested once a year - not once every two years as some doctors recommend after the age of 65 - is key. Also, he says it’s better to visit a breast specialist rather than a gynecologist for your breast check. Finally, lifestyle factors can also play a big role in prevention: eating a balanced, nutritious diet and maintaining a healthy weight are found to be imperative factors (overweight women, especially in their menopausal years, are at the highest risk); keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum, exercising, keeping a positive mindset, avoiding stress factors (not getting enough sleep, anxiety, over-working etc) and not smoking are also helpful prevention strategies.