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Experts sound alarm over breast cancer

German-speaking parts of Switzerland have fallen behind in terms of screening programmes. KLS

Switzerland has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in Europe with around one in ten women suffering from the disease.

To raise awareness in Switzerland, a national breast cancer prevention campaign has been taking place every October for the past five years.

Run by the Swiss Cancer League, in association with other cancer groups, the campaign focuses on the importance of screening for the disease.

Breast cancer is responsible for 12 per cent of deaths of women between the ages of 20 and 50, making it one of the primary causes of death in that age group. There are 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

“Breast cancer is on the rise in all industrialised counties,” said Dr Christine Bouchardy, head of Geneva’s cancer registry, which collects data on cancer. “It’s considered a disease of the rich countries – and Switzerland has one of the highest percentages in Europe.

“It’s one of the greatest public health problems, yet the state has not responded in an adequate way.”


She added that there was still much to be done in Switzerland, especially in the German-speaking part of the country, which has fallen behind the French and Italian-speaking parts when it comes to breast cancer screening programmes.

Bettina Borisch, a professor of medicine at Geneva University and president of a commission of breast cancer experts, says Switzerland’s high breast cancer rate has also to do with the health-care system’s focus on curative, rather than preventive measures.

“Our country is famous for having excellent curative medicine, into which between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of resources are invested,” said Borisch.

“Therefore preventive medicine has generally been neglected, also in the realm of breast cancer.”

The Swiss Cancer League says there are hereditary elements to the disease. Another factor is age: 46 per cent of women who contract breast cancer are between 50- and 70-years-old, whereas 33 per cent are over 70.


“Breast cancer is, however, less frequent among young women, but it is more virulent and often fatal,” the League’s Inès Binggeli told swissinfo.

According to recent studies, other risk factors include early menstruation, obesity and hormone replacement therapy.

As a result, the main theme of the campaign this year is the importance of screening for the disease.

Binggeli says all young women should carry out personal breast examinations. Regular mammographies are usually only carried out on women over 50 in Switzerland but the Swiss Cancer League advises women to go for a preliminary mammography at the age of 40.


Bouchardy says great strides have been made in finding treatments for breast cancer and that screening is an essential weapon in the fight against the disease.

“Thanks to screening one can pinpoint small tumours and remove them,” said Bouchardy. “Furthermore, fewer mastectomies are being carried out these days, and one only intervenes in the affected area.”

“And thanks to new surgical methods, operations are less disfiguring; there are also new forms of chemotherapy,” she added.

The doctor said that progress had also been made with anti-oestrogen therapies, such as Tamoxifen, which are used to treat advanced forms of breast cancer.

“The combined action of early screening and cures, mean that women today have a far better chance of survival,” said Bouchardy.

But Borisch says that there are also social issues in play in the fight against breast cancer.

“It essentially a women’s disease,” she said. “An American woman said that if breast cancer was a man’s disease, millions of dollars would be invested in research. This is a fact that one cannot ignore, whether you like it or not.”

swissinfo, Françoise Gehring

In Switzerland around one in ten women suffers from breast cancer.
In the European Union, the figure is 300,000 women (2003).
In the United States there are 90 new cases of the disease per 100,000 women a year.
Around 70 per cent of women suffering from breast cancer are still living five years after diagnosis.

The prevention campaign is being run by the Swiss Cancer League and other groups.

Meetings and demonstrations are planned throughout the country in October.

There will also be a pink infobus driving around the country, with experts on board who can give advice on the disease.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR