Breast cancer is a subject that is openly discussed in the U.S., however the World Health Organization blames cultural taboos on the shocking amount of breast cancers deaths in Pakistan.
Pakistani women have a higher risk of dying of breast cancer then dying in a terrorist attack. While awareness groups have stepped in to help the situation, the cultural mores have gotten in the way. The word ‘breast’ is considered a taboo and cannot be spoken aloud. Breast cancer had to be referred to as the cancer of women when talking about the disease, mammograms and self-exams.
Breast cancer is shrouded in shame and darkness in the Muslim majority country. One out of every nine Pakistani women will suffer from breast cancer in their lifetime; Pakistan has the highest reported amounts of breast cancer in Asia, according to the PinkRibbon group, a breast cancer awareness group, oncologists and other awareness groups.
Discussing the disease is a taboo in the conservative Islamic culture, any word relating to female body parts is associated with sex versus health; many Muslims view it as indecent for women to visit a doctor for screening, tests or medical care. Women cannot discuss the disease within the privacy of their own families.
Fehmida Mizra, a Pakistani politician and breast cancer survivor and other groups are drawing attention to breast cancer in order to break the cultural stigma surrounding the disease.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mizra expressed the senselessness of Pakistani women living in ignorance and neglect about a disease that will kill them without proper treatment.
No database exists to track the occurrence of the disease but medical personnel report almost 40,000 Pakistani women die every year. While that figure is close to the amount of women who die in the U.S., proportionately the figures are vastly different. The U.S. population is 313 million while Pakistan’s population is about half of the U.S. at 180 million. The fact that the health care system in Pakistan is in chaos coupled with an increase of young women contracting the disease, experts expect the rates to go much higher, painting a grim future for the women of Pakistan where breast cancer rates soar and cultural taboos are to blame.
Shahzad Aalam, a World Health Organization (WHO) official based in Pakistan reported the difficulty WHO’s had in determining the actual magnitude of the rampant disease. Breast cancer is the number one cancer killer in women, stated Aalam.
Pakistani women are kept in the dark about the disease. A study at Rawalpindi Hospital about the breast cancer awareness amid 600 women showed almost 70 percent were completely unaware of the disease while 88 percent didn’t know about self-exams and 68 percent did not comprehend the implication of finding a lump.
When women are diagnosed with the disease, they will not discuss it with their family, friends or their spouse stated Omar Aftab of PinkRibbon based in Pakistan where the word ‘breast’ could not be used during a university lecture.
While the organization is trying to break the cultural stigma and taboos surrounding breast cancer, it can be impossible to change such a strongly held belief.
During a lecture in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, female students insisted the men be barred from the auditorium before the breast cancer awareness meeting could take place.
While the taboo placed on talking about the disease is a big enough hill to climb, medical professionals state Pakistan’s appalling health care is desperate for money, drugs and updated equipment. Saira Hasan, oncologist at Shifa International Hospital reported, most hospitals lack the necessary supplies to care for the women properly. The scarcity of screening clinics and mammogram machines has hindered patient care.
Most patients visit a traditional healer first only seeking help from a reputable doctor when the symptoms persist, by that time the disease has spread and is too advanced to treat.
According to Hasan, women living in a third world country tend to die in greater numbers than women from more advanced countries because of a delay in detection and available health care is often lacking supplies, technology and qualified, reputable doctors.
Cultural taboos will continue to be blamed for the soaring breast cancer deaths as Pakistani women live in ignorance of the deadly disease.
By Deborah Baran
The Oregon Live