Breast cancer: Pakistan's most common cancer
Women only go see a doctor when the pain is too great or the weakness is unbearable. But by that time it is too late.
It was the summer of 1999, when a bunch of us, final year medical students, were attending to patients in the crowded outpatient department at the Mayo Hospital in Lahore. Our professor had called us to come see a patient in one of the consultation rooms.
The patient was a young woman, no more than 35 years of age. She had come to the hospital with a large breast mass. She said that she had first felt the mass more than a year ago. After ignoring it for months, she had finally mustered the courage to talk to her husband about it. Together they had visited a local ‘pir’ who had given her a ‘taweez’. When that didn’t help, they had gone to a local ‘hakim’, whose medicine hadn’t worked either. And now here she was, a hundred miles from home, at Mayo Hospital, hoping for a cure. But it was too late. It had been too late for several months. She had needed surgery and chemotherapy months earlier. As things stood, the cancer had spread to her bone marrow and lungs. Sadly, she died a few weeks later.
This is a sad story. Unfortunately, this is also a common story. Fifteen years after that day at Mayo Hospital, I still see similar patients. Women continue to hide their illness out of shyness as they are reluctant to talk about it. In many cases, women don’t draw attention to their illness because they don’t want to burden their family’s limited resources. They only go see a doctor when the pain is too great or the weakness is unbearable. By the time they visit a doctor for diagnosis and management, it is almost invariably too late.
Breast cancer will affect one of every eight women in their lifetime. Punjab Cancer Registry data suggests that breast cancer is the most common cancer in Pakistan. Unfortunately, it is still considered a taboo to talk about breast cancer.
Women need to realise that they can beat the odds and breast cancer can be cured. The kind of treatment options that exist today were not available a couple of years ago. Depending on the size and type of cancer, treatment options include surgery, hormone therapy and even targeted gene therapy. These treatments are very much available in Pakistan. What needs to be understood is that the golden rule of cancer therapy still applies – early detection leads to successful treatment.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month all over the world. It is time for us to spread the word on the need for early detection. We need to educate women about self-examination and the need to see a doctor if they feel a breast lump. All it takes is just a few seminars and consultations. It requires a shift in our mind-sets towards women and their health.
Breast cancer does not only affect women, it devastates entire families. And that is why we need to stop thinking of it as a women’s health concern, and start looking at it as a national health issue.