In Pakistan, a country where breast cancer kills more women than terrorist attacks, an awareness group couldn’t even say the word “breast” while talking at a university about mammograms and how to check for lumps. They had to use the euphemism “cancer of women” to discuss a disease often shrouded in social stigma in this majority Muslim nation.
One in nine women in Pakistan will face breast cancer during their life, with the country having the highest rate of the disease across Asia, according to the breast cancer awareness group PinkRibbon, oncologists and other aid groups.
Yet discussing it remains taboo in a conservative, Islamic culture where the word breast is associated with sexuality instead of health and many view it as immoral for women to go to the hospital for screenings or discuss it with their family.
Now, women like breast cancer survivor and prominent Pakistani politician Fehmida Mirza and groups are trying to draw attention to the disease and break the silence surrounding it.
“There’s nothing to be shy about it,” Mirza told The Associated Press in an interview. “No woman, no woman should die of ignorance and negligence.”
No national database tracks breast cancer statistics but people who combat the disease say it kills nearly 40,000 women every year in Pakistan. That’s about the same rate as in the US, though Pakistan only has 180 million residents to the US’ 313 million.
With a health care system in shambles and more young women getting the disease, breast cancer rates only are expected to get worse. World Health Organization official Shahzad Aalam in Pakistan said it was difficult to determine the exact magnitude, but that the disease is rampant. “It is the leading cancer killer among women,” Aalam said.
Among Pakistani women there is very little knowledge about the disease. A study done at Rawalpindi General Hospital about breast cancer awareness among 600 women found 70 per cent totally ignorant of the disease, while 88 per cent did not know about breast self-exams and 68 per cent did not understand the significance of finding a lump in the breast. “If women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, they don’t even share the news with their family members,” said Omar Aftab, who heads PinkRibbon in Pakistan, which put on the varsity presentation where organisers couldn’t even say “breast”. “We’re trying to break these taboos,” he said.
Those cultural taboos have been one of the biggest issues preventing women from seeking treatment or even knowing about the disease. During an awareness event in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, female students attending a breast cancer lecture demanded the men leave.
“It will take very long for us to discuss these issues openly,” said one female student who requested anonymity because she feared her family wouldn’t like her speaking about the issue.
Another challenge is Pakistan’s abysmal health care sector that is starved for money, the latest technology and drugs. Oncologist Saira Hasan at Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad said most major hospitals lack a screening centre or mammogram facility. Many patients first continued…