Feasibility, uptake and real-life challenges of a rural cervical and breast cancer screening program in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, South India

Indian J Cancer. Jul-Sep 2021;58(3):417-424. doi: 10.4103/ijc.IJC_271_19.


Background: Early detection of breast and cervical cancer by organized screening has been found to reduce mortality rates in trials, but documentation of programme results and challenges is rarely done from non-trial settings. This study reports results of a population-based cancer control programme in a rural block in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, population size (116,085), targeting a population of 18,490 women aged 25-60 years, between November 2014 and March 2018.

Methods: Village-based health education sessions were conducted by social workers, using trained volunteers and health workers to motivate eligible women. Screening was done at a secondary level hospital, by trained general physicians using visual inspection with acetic acid and clinical breast examination, followed by colposcopy, radiological imaging (breast) and biopsy as required.

Results: A total of 8 volunteers and 17 health workers motivated women for 93 health education and screening sessions, in 46 out of 82 villages. While 1,890/18,490 (10.2 per cent) were screened for breast cancer, 1,783 (9.6 per cent) were screened for cervical cancer, with a yield of 3.4/1,000 for cervical pre-cancer/cancer. The main challenges were creating time for screening activities in a busy secondary hospital and difficulty in ensuring treatment completion of screen-detected cases.

Conclusions: Population-based cancer screening programs can be offered by secondary hospitals that also run primary care services, to increase screening rates. Clear referral systems need to be established, bearing in mind that social factors, especially poor family support, may pose a threat to treatment, in spite of easy availability of cure.

Keywords: Breast; cancer control program; cancer screening; cervix; visual inspection with acetic acid.