“One in eight women will get breast cancer in the UK”
Watching the daily headlines yesterday morning, there was the usual update on the political turmoil in Egypt which has dominated the news headlines for over a week now, and afterwards, was the news coverage on the risk of breast cancer among women in the UK. According to the report the risk has increased from one in ten women 10 years ago, to one in eight women today, and that this increase is as a result of “lifestyle risk factors” among modern women. But this is neither new nor surprising nor news-worthy, you say. Ah! But the best (or worse) is yet to come. According to the report, the most influential risk factors are obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and “having fewer children or having them later in life”! So says BBC which got these figures from Cancer Research UK, a leading non-profit organization on well, cancer research. Shocking! Yep!? Now you are probably wondering what cancer in the UK has got to do with the title of today’s post. I will get to that in a bit but before I go further, I would like to state a caveat that I am not at all trying to take a moral or religious-preachy high-ground here. I am merely stating and interpreting facts that I have come across as I understand them.
In the risk factors mentioned above, what struck me as a bit of an irony was the one about the delay in having children. Mankind has always been on a quest to improve every aspect of life and well-being – socio-culturally, politically, economically, physically and mentally through advancements in the fields of medical science, technology, transport and communications in a bid to make the quality and conditions of life better. There is surely a difference between life today and the brutishness, disease and uncertainty that characterized life centuries ago. For us women in particular, we have recorded remarkable improvements in the manner and conditions of life and rights accorded to us. From those early days when in some cultures women were inherited by late husbands’ relatives, to old traditions in places like India where women were burnt alive with their dead husbands, to the middle-ages in Europe were women at the slightest opportunity were accused of witchcraft, tortured and burnt at the stake, women have made tremendous progress, have earned the rights to be educated, seek a means of livelihood, the right to vote, have a voice and be regarded as equals and most importantly be in control of how they choose to live their lives.
Like everything else in life which has its merits, the demerits also abound. As progress has been made and conditions of life have become better, there has been a tendency to lose sight of the most important things which constitute the bedrock of our existence. Like I mentioned earlier, I am not trying to assume a superior or religious high-ground or to sound judgmental. With this progress, and considering the fact we live in a “free world” as it is widely claimed, it is then a matter of personal choice whether the modern woman chooses to have kids in her life time or not, or whether she decides to have them at a later time in life or not, or whether she decides to have just one or two is totally optional right? Furthermore, it happens that some women unfortunately as a result of circumstances beyond their control such as medical or health conditions; not getting married or finding a suitable, life partner on time and other exogenous factors beyond their control subject them to child-bearing at a later. However what has eluded my comprehension is why some women decide for personal reasons not to have children when they have the chance to do so or to delay it for so long. Please I’m not trying to be judgmental here or to make senseless generalize but apart from factors beyond their control, delaying having children or not having them at all for reasons such as career pursuits, lifestyle, or as a hallmark of being the “modern woman” free of all encumbrances or because they are not “into” kids or as a matter of “personal choice” is just something that astounds me! Here it is necessary to apply plain, simple logic: if our parents and ancestors had decided not to have children, we would not be here. Besides this is one of the fundamental basis of the cycle of life – reproducing, keeping the family line going, having children/offspring to carry on with your legacy – whatever legacy that is. Okay agreed this legacy thing sounds a bit vague as not everyone is famous, has published tons of books or something along those lines, but one’s legacy could even be having children who take after your looks, your smile, your peculiar habits etc. That is something! And if you’re the religious type, having children is important because you have people who pray for you after you die. Well, maybe I am just ignorant and I don’t understand this, maybe. And when it comes to the issue of having a career, I don’t understand the logic behind not having children because of career pursuits. Yes it is a very tedious task juggling work and family life but it is not impossible and that is what makes us women – our perseverance, strength, endurance and need I mention multitasking abilities! Yes, studies have proven that women are way better than men at multitasking and juggling different commitments like work, family etc at once.
We have some famous women who have balanced their work and family life. For instance Christiane Amanpour, ace international correspondent (the only Western Journalist who by the way has interviewed Hosni Mubarak in crises-ridden Egypt) is married (I just put that for emphasis, marriage is definitely not the subject of my blog today) and has a son; so all this argument about having a career and what not is lost on me.
Furthermore, the issue of child-bearing is significantly affecting population levels in Europe and other parts of the developed world. According to the New York times, a 2002 report for the European Union shows that birthrates in Europe had fallen below 1.3children and at that rate, the population would be cut in half from which “it would be nearly impossible to recover”. For some towns in Italy, it is less than 1child and in Germany, the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000 – this was in 2002, I am pretty sure the situation is worse today in 2011. The same source further states that
“Social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control…”
Furthermore, the same NY Times and other sources allege that the immigrant population especially from the third world account for a considerable percentage of birthrates in these places. Thus Europe and even Japan is facing the crisis of an impending aging population, an aging population riddled with a high-risk of cancer, or heart-disease or diabetes at that.
On a slightly different note, but closely related to this and which comes closer home is the increased drive by especially international agencies to control population growth in the third world. There have been so many arguments and debates from both sides on the need to control the rapid growth of population in the developing world especially in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa because of the strain on scarce world resources like water, food, available land etc, and on the other side of the argument are those who allege (have often times been labeled as conspiracy theorists) that this population control agenda has barely anything to do with limited resources, but that it is because of the threat posed by declining population in the West and the need to balance this population proportion of the developed and the developing world. According to this school of thought, this is being achieved overtly and covertly through for instance lacing vaccines such as the oral polio vaccine with compounds that can cause sterility. In Nigeria, recall the controversy that trailed the administering of the polio vaccine in the Northern part of the country some years ago. All (potential) conspiracy-theories aside, in my own opinion I think it is just wrong to control population; it is nobody’s duty or responsibility to do that as it amounts to meddling with nature, nature has its own way of reducing the human population – with all the natural disasters, floods, earthquakes that consume lives on a regular basis, why do people see the need to take away other people’s basic right to reproduce!?
The increased risk of cancer which I mentioned at the beginning of this article has also been linked to the use of (maybe excessive use of) contraceptives especially the birth control pill. This is not something I want to discuss in-depth for many reasons but the basic thing is that this pill works by altering a woman’s normal hormonal balance. The very first time I heard about it in the Reproduction session of Integrated Science (Biology) class when I was about 10 or 11yrs old, I had deep reservations about it. Well, studies have shown that it significantly increases the risk of breast cancer. In the same vein is the HRT (Hormonal Replacement Therapy) which is basically used by women undergoing menopause to reduce the symptoms associated with it, delay it and even reverse the process. Even the name “Hormonal Replacement” just sounds very disturbing! Well, studies have shown that HRT increases risk by about 66% and that women who have undergone the menopause have a lower risk of breast cancer than pre-menopausal women of the same age. The risk increases by almost 3% for each year older at menopause, so that a woman who has the menopause at 55 rather than 45, has approximately 30% higher risk according to Cancer Research, UK. The figures are startling!
I am sorry for painting such a gloomy picture but those are facts staring us right in the face. Pushing the boundaries of modernity and progress and toying with nature’s designs certainly has its limits and its consequences. Certainly not only cancer, but even diabetes, stroke and heart attack have been on the increase over the past few decades not just in the developed world but even in the developing world as well, and research has shown a correlation between these and changes in lifestyle. For me any issue that has to do with cancer is very personal and is something I take quite seriously, having lost some family members to that, and there seems to be a steady, alarming increase in cancer patients in Nigeria. No doubt there have been tremendous leaps in the quality of life due to modern medical science, technology, etc but if we continue to disregard the very essence of our existence on the altar of modernity, continue to toy with nature then the purpose is defeated. We in the developing world especially have to be very careful about the kind of things, and lifestyle choices we choose to import and adopt into our societies.