By: Nadia Agha
Recently I visited an institute of radiotherapy in northern Sindh for organising an awareness-raising seminar on breast cancer. I was overwhelmed to see the place specifically made for cancer related issues where a large number of women were making their way for breast cancer detection and diagnosis, but at the same time seeing these rural women in miserable condition was an agonising experience. On one hand, there were the women suffering from breast cancer. On the other hand, there were the men, belonging to low socioeconomic status, begging the staff for the financial support for their wives’ treatment.
Generally speaking, cancer causes a great deal of stress around the patients and their families, but it becomes a fraught issue when it has to do with women and their sexuality. Pakistan is said to have the highest incidence of breast cancer occurrence in Asia. It has been stated that one in nine women is likely to suffer from it, every year about 90,000 new cases of breast cancer are reported and 40,000 women die from it. New research studies reveal that Pakistani women are more prone to having breast cancer at a younger age as compared to their counterparts in western countries. Nevertheless, there is a lack of research on how women suffering from breast cancer cope with socio-psychological effects and deal with the people who look down upon them.
The alarming statistics on breast cancer make it essential for the state to introduce well-integrated and improved programmes for raising awareness as well as countering stigma against breast cancer. Currently, there is a strong rural-urban divide when it comes to raising awareness against breast cancer; knowledge about this fatal disease is highly deficient in rural areas. Most of the activities that raise awareness are concentrated in cities or towns targeting youth in educational institutions whereas those who belong to rural areas are unaware about prevention and cure of the disease. Sadly, there is a great deal of stigma associated with breast cancer. Women in our parts of the world feel ashamed of seeking help unless it gets compulsory. This stigma may often lead to denial from the diagnosis as well. Lack of awareness and low socioeconomic status add more to the problem. Such problems worsen in rural areas where people have low levels of literacy, less exposure to media and lack of access to modern facilities to treat the disease. Also, rural Pakistani households are extremely patriarchal where all decisions of women’s lives are taken by men. Even when women want to see doctors, their access to the specialist is conditional upon the wish of their men in the family. It is unfortunate to say that the appearance of any lump is often ignored and women are only taken to the hospitals when it is too late to cure the cancer.
Pakistani women can be empowered to control their health issues if they receive timely support, but unfortunately there is no awareness at family or community level in rural areas. If a woman is diagnosed with cancer, she not only has to fight against cancer but also against social attitudes around it let alone seeking psychological support on trauma of losing one or both breasts.
It has become imperative for Pakistan to develop effective practices to combat the disease. In this context, the problem of the prevalence of breast cancer needs to be dealt with taking local culture and social attitudes in consideration. Therefore, all strategies must also target rural and remote areas and involve wider audience. Breast cancer is curable with early detection which is only possible when awareness raising activities and healthcare facilities are extended to every nook and corner and involve families, in particular men.