KARACHI: Nearly 90,000 women in Pakistan are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. A staggering 40,000 of these are diagnosed too late and do not live to tell their stories. The shame and stigma associated with breast cancer often prevents women from getting tested and treated in the early stages of the disease. Forty-thousand is an unfortunate number for a disease that is treatable and can be defeated if diagnosed early.
On Friday, doctors, students, staff and survivors, joined by family and friends, walked to raise awareness on this issue at the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH). The 'Pink Walk' was organised as part of a month-long 'Let's Defeat Breast Cancer Together' campaign at AKUH.
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"If all of us come to events like this, make some noise and create awareness, we can bring this number down," said AKUH Marketing and Communications Director Shamsah Virani, who was hosting the event. "Women don't come for testing because they are afraid they will lose their breast but if treated early, the breast can be saved," she said, adding that nearly 60% women in Pakistan are susceptible to breast cancer. "We need to stop being shy and talk about this disease," said Virani.
To spread their reach further and ensure early testing, a Mobile Mammogram Bus was launched at the event. The bus will cater to women over the age of 40 and will carry female attendants and technologists who will provide mammogram examination services, physical examinations and ultrasounds, at subsidised rates. It will reach out to communities that lack breast cancer awareness. "Breast cancer is one of the major causes of death in Pakistan and early detection is important. We want to reach out to every woman who is not able to come to the hospital," said AKUH Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Hans Kedzierski. While initially the bus will target only women, eventually AKUH hopes to launch the service for men as well who are also susceptible to breast cancer but are at lesser risk.
Virani stressed that monthly self-examinations and yearly clinical examinations are crucial for women. Early detection can allow for treatment and increase chances of survival, she said. The chief guest at the event Sana Hashwani of Sana Safinaz declared the same. "It's about early detection. Breast cancer is treatable. Get out there and get checked," she said. Virani also clarified that pain in the breast does not necessarily indicate cancer, but if you feel lumps you should get tested immediately.
The role of men in supporting women and encouraging them to get tested and treated was also emphasized at the event. "Men are influencers for health care related decisions in Pakistan," said AKUH Dr Huma Naz of Gastro Intestinal Surgery. The campaign has been reaching out to men as well, encouraging them to support the women of their community in getting tested and treated. For this purpose, a video has also been made with the hashtag, 'I stand with her'.
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Kashif and Sumaira, a husband-wife duo were called to the stage and applauded for partaking in the video when most people had refused. "Women please do your self-examination, you can feel the changes and help with your diagnosis," said Sumaira. Kashif nodded in agreement and declared his support for the campaign. His mother too was a survivor. The men in the audience made their support felt as they applauded in appreciation of the efforts and cheered when Virani asked, "Do you stand with her?"
"Men should be cognizant of the fact that it is not just a woman's disease. Early diagnosis is the best way to be a survivor. I was diagnosed on a mamogram. Not everyone can come to AKUH so we need to go into communities to reach to them," said AKUH Senior Lecturer Dr Saida Rasul another survivor, who has been in remission for 18 years now.
Making noise was the aim of the event and make noise they did. After speeches from AKUH doctors and staff, and breast cancer survivors, nearly 800 people walked to raise awareness. Adorned in pink and white, they walked to the beats of Ed Sheeran's 'in love with the shape of you,' carrying placards with slogans both informative and supportive, "one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer" and "supporting the fight against breast cancer". The music, played by City FM 89, was fitting for the occasion, where women were urged to overcome the stigma of breast cancer, own their bodies and take charge of their health. The placards, thrust in the air by the walkers, read "ladies love yourself, five minute self-exam every month" and "supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors".
Speaking to The Express Tribune, AKUH Dr Sana Zeeshan who played a vital role in developing the mobile mammogram machine, said, "The problem with our society is that women are not independent. They consider themselves the lowest of priorities and don't pay attention to their bodies and health." She also emphasized on the taboos associated with breast cancer. "They feel that having breast cancer means they are being punished by god for having done something bad."
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Dr Sana Zeeshan's sentiments were echoed by AKUH Dental Hygeine Programme Director Salima Albhai. "Women are very conscious of their bodies and feel ashamed at the idea that there might be something wrong with them," she told The Express Tribune. Breast cancer is the number one cancer in this country, followed by oral cancer at number two, she added.
Fehmida Iqbal, the owner of a senior care home and a breast cancer survivor, was of the opinion that breast cancer is like any other ailment and needs to be treated as such. She shared with the attendees an endearing anecdote of her children's response to her diagnosis. "It is not like you had a heart attack and died, it is only cancer and we can treat it," she quoted. "We don't abandon kids who get sugar, or expecting mothers who contract diseases, then why should we abandon women with breast cancer," she said later, while speaking to The Express Tribune. Fehmida now has lumps in her throat but she is positive that she will fight that too.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2018.
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