As October paints the world in shades of pink, we come together for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to remember those who have faced this challenge, celebrate the strength of survivors, and strive for better awareness about the early prevention of breast cancer. Most importantly, it’s a time for us to understand and learn more about this life-threatening condition.
Why Talk about Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer ranks as the most prevalent cancer worldwide, constituting around one-third of all new female cancers in developed countries. In 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a staggering 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer globally, and breast cancer claimed the lives of 685,000 individuals.1 Beyond the harrowing mortality figures, breast cancer inflicts immeasurable physical and emotional anguish upon patients and their loved ones.
The Importance of Early Detection & Prevention
In general, the exact causes of breast cancer are unknown. A combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors are commonly said to contribute to its development. Lifestyle factors that increase one’s risk of breast cancer include obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, reproductive history, smoking, and postmenopausal hormones. However, it is important to note that nearly half of all breast cancer cases globally occur in women without any specific risk factors, aside from their gender and age.2 Therefore, no women are immune to the potential development of breast cancer. Thus, managing lifestyle risk factors alone cannot suffice and the most prudent course of action is to adhere to recommended screening protocols.
Early detection plays a pivotal role in improving breast cancer survival rates. According to statistics from the Singapore Cancer Registry 2017, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer in Singapore increases from 24.6% to a remarkable 90.7% when detected at stage I rather than stage IV.3 The primary methods for early detection of breast cancer are mammography and Breast Self-Examination (BSE). Different guidelines have been established across various regions globally, with one of the most common recommendations being monthly BSE for all women aged 20 and above.
Looking into breast cancer in Gen Re’s most recent Dread Disease Survey 2015–2019 (DD Survey) which studies critical illness, it can be seen that the average age for breast cancer claims is 48 years in both Hong Kong and Malaysia markets and 50 years in the Singapore market. Mammograms are typically recommended for most women between 40‑74 years of age, with a specific optimal age group for screening being those between 50‑69.4 Many countries offer subsidies or public screening services for mammograms, making them accessible at an affordable cost. WHO’s World Health Statistics 2023 report further highlights that a significant proportion of countries, approximately 59% worldwide, have implemented early detection programs for breast cancer.5 For instance, a typical Singaporean aged 50 and above can access mammogram screening for a mere SGD 50 (USD 37) every two years.6 The National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) also offers free mammogram screening services for all women above the age of 40 in September and October this year, in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.7
Insurance and Breast Cancer Coverage
The 10‑year incidence rate for breast cancer is on the rise in the Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore markets, each at varying degrees of deterioration, as indicated by the DD Survey. The figure below illustrates the trend in Age-Standardised Incidence Rate (ASIR) for females in all three markets from 2009 to 2019.
ASIR of female breast cancer