Sarah had a lugubrious tear-stained face while her husband tried to console her. She had been diagnosed with a stage IV breast cancer and the doctor said the prognosis was very poor. Unfortunately, Sarah’s case is prosaic and it resonates with the case of every eighth woman in Pakistan, but the dilemma is that despite its ubiquity in our society, breast cancer remains a stigmatized disease and a taboo subject of discussion.
Among all Asian countries, Pakistan has the highest incidence of breast cancer and it culminates in killing about 40,000 women annually i.e every 12 minutes, on average, a woman succumbs to breast cancer, yet we are reluctant to talk about such a grave issue. These statistics are symptomatic of a lack of awareness that is pervasive in our society regarding breast cancer, and this ignorance has reached to such an extent that most of the women even don’t know what breast cancer is, let alone ignoring the potential signs of it.
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In our patriarchal society, breasts are widely viewed as objects of sexual gratification, so most of the people eschew discussion about breast cancer, which in fact has nothing to do with sexuality. Even the women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer shy away from disclosing it to their families because of the stigma surrounding the disease. It is the hypocrisy of our society that advertisements for male sexual dysfunction can be flaunted, but a critical issue like breast cancer cannot be openly discussed owing to the fact that it involves intimate parts of a woman’s body.
Burying our head in sand wouldn’t alter the reality; the aforementioned statistics would remain stagnant unless we change our attitude towards this malady. In this regard, concrete measures need to be taken merely bathing buildings in pink light is not enough. Both the government and NGOs should collaborate with each other in raising awareness among women through education on symptoms and treatment of breast cancer. There is even a greater need to educate a significant proportion of women living in rural areas who are completely oblivious to the symptoms of breast cancer and only visit an oncologist when it’s already too late. The importance of breast self-examination and screening needs to be stressed upon among these women.
We need to make every woman realize that the only person that can save her is herself. Breast cancer is inevitable but an early diagnosis can lead to a better prognosis as Ann Jillian puts it, “There can be life after breast cancer. The only prerequisite is early detection”. Most importantly, we must understand that there is no shame in talking about breast cancer because this act of ours can make a difference in someone’s life. We need to stand up and shatter this taboo because a woman’s life is worth more than the ostensible honor of our society. We need to break this silence because no one deserves to die of stigma.