In conservative Pakistan, politician and others challenge taboos hiding rise of breast cancer

In this Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 photo, breast cancer survivor and prominent Pakistani politician Fehmida Mirza, speaks during an interview in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

ASIF SHAHZAD
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In Pakistan, a country where breast cancer kills more women than terrorist attacks, an awareness group couldn’t even say the word “breast” while talking at a university about mammograms and how to check for lumps.

They had to use the euphemism “cancer of women” to discuss a disease often shrouded in social stigma in this majority Muslim nation.

One in nine women in Pakistan will face breast cancer during their life, with the country itself having the highest rate of the disease across Asia, according to the breast cancer awareness group PinkRibbon, oncologists and other aid groups.

Yet discussing it remains taboo in a conservative, Islamic culture where the word breast is associated with sexuality instead of health and many view it as immoral for women to go to the hospital for screenings or discuss it even within their family.

Now, women like breast cancer survivor and prominent Pakistani politician Fehmida Mirza and groups are trying to draw attention to the disease and break the silence surrounding it.

“There’s nothing to be shy about it,” Mirza told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “No woman, no woman should die of ignorance and negligence.”

No national database tracks breast cancer statistics but people who combat the disease say it kills nearly 40,000 women every year in Pakistan. That’s about the same number as in the U.S., though Pakistan only has 180 million residents to the U.S.’ 313 million.

With a health care system in shambles and more young women getting the disease, breast cancer rates only are expected to get worse. World Health Organization official Shahzad Aalam in Pakistan said it was difficult to determine the exact magnitude, but that the disease is rampant.

“It is the leading cancer killer among women,” Aalam said.

Among Pakistani women there is very little knowledge about the disease. A study done at Rawalpindi General Hospital about breast cancer awareness among 600 women found nearly 70 per cent totally ignorant of the disease, while 88 per cent did not know about breast self-exams and 68 per cent did not understand the significance of finding a lump in the breast.

“If women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, they don’t even share the news with their family members,” said Omar Aftab, who heads PinkRibbon in Pakistan, which put on the university presentation where organizers couldn’t even say “breast.”

“So, we’re trying to break these taboos,” he said.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 photo, Pakistani women listen to a lecture organized by the breast cancer awareness group PinkRibbon in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

Those cultural taboos have been one of the biggest issues preventing women from seeking treatment or even knowing about the disease. During an awareness event in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, female students attending a breast cancer lecture demanded the men leave.

“It will take very long for us to discuss these issues openly,” said one female student who requested anonymity because she feared her family wouldn’t like her speaking about the issue.

Another challenge is Pakistan’s abysmal health care sector that is starved for money, the latest technology and drugs. Oncologist Saira Hasan at Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad said most major hospitals lack a screening centre or mammogram facility. Many patients first go to a traditional healer and by the time they visit a reputable doctor, the disease is often too far advanced to treat, Hasan said.

Women in the developing world, like Pakistan, tend to die at greater rates than in more developed countries because the disease is generally detected later and health care options aren’t as good.

Hasan said several factors have contributed to the rise in the disease — above all the cultural taboos. Breast cancer survivor Sameera Raja, who owns an art gallery in southern Karachi and supports women facing breast cancer, says that it has to be changed.

“You’re surprised to hear how women actually sit on things,” Raja said. Recalling how a woman would feel too embarrassed to talk about it even with her husband, she said: “Don’t hide behind closed doors.”

Unlike in the U.S. where celebrities like singer Sheryl Crow or actress Christina Applegate have freely discussed their fight with breast cancer, few such public figures have come forward in Pakistan. That’s changed with Mirza, though she had to delay her treatment for three months after she was diagnosed in March 2012 to handle her work, which included how to rule on whether a criminal conviction against the serving prime minister should disqualify him from politics.

“There was lot of pressure on me, work pressure,” she said. “Everybody (would) say it’s an excuse I’m using to run away.”

Mirza described her friends and family being shocked by the diagnosis, as the cancer is considered by many as a death sentence. But during her diagnosis and treatment, she attended international conferences, ruled on the then-prime minister’s case and later ran for re-election and won while undergoing chemotherapy.

She now uses her position in parliament to advocate for women’s health issues. She plans to propose a bill making it mandatory for women to have breast cancer screenings and mammograms yearly, as well as to teach girls in schools to do breast exams themselves. She also pushed the health ministry to explain why there is no national database on breast cancer deaths.

“I think the role models will have to come forward,” Mirza said. “That is one reason I had to.”

Tags: , , , , , , ,





Featured

kate main

Gallery: Duchess Catherine races to the rescue in heels on beachy Sydney tour

GORDON RAYNER THE DAILY TELEGRAPH RUNNING in slow-motion along a golden beach, the Duchess of Cambridge appeared to emulate one of the famous scenes from…
Continue Reading »

Kirpans, stylized swords worn by initiated Sikh men and women as dictated by  their religious beliefs, are now allowed in embassies. Jason Payne/ PNG

Canada to allow Sikh kirpans in its embassies and missions abroad

JEFF LACROIX-WILSON OTTAWA CITIZEN Eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that kirpans – the ceremonial daggers worn by those of the Sikh…
Continue Reading »

One of relatives of Chinese passengers on board the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 pray at a hotel conference room in Beijing, China, Friday, April 18, 2014. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Malaysian minister says this weekend vital for MH370 search

IANS Kuala Lumpur  – Malaysian acting Transport Minister Hishammudin Hussein said this weekend is very important for the search of the missing MH370 jet. “I…
Continue Reading »

LOCAL NEWS

Kirpans, stylized swords worn by initiated Sikh men and women as dictated by  their religious beliefs, are now allowed in embassies. Jason Payne/ PNG

Canada to allow Sikh kirpans in its embassies and missions abroad

JEFF LACROIX-WILSON OTTAWA CITIZEN Eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that kirpans – the ceremonial daggers worn by those of the Sikh…
Continue Reading »

Inspector Paulette Freill, left announces at BC RCMP Headquarters in Surrey Thursday April 17, 2014 a 35 year-old Dutch citizen was charged with several criminal offence in connection to the 2012 death of teen Amanda Todd. Amanda's parents Carol, center and Norman Todd, right attended the announcement. Ric Ernst / PNG

Charges laid against Dutch man in Amanda Todd online extortion case

ELAINE O’CONNOR and STEPHANIE IP VANCOUVER DESI Five charges — including harassment and Internet luring — have been laid against Aydin Coban, a Dutch national,…
Continue Reading »

Amanda Todd

A timeline of the events before and after Amanda Todd’s suicide

A timeline of the events before and after Amanda Todd’s suicide: Late 2010 - Grade 7 student Amanda Todd was in a webcam chat room with…
Continue Reading »

Don't Miss...

File photo: Indian villagers gather near the body of an elephant in a field in the northeastern state of Assam on July 8, 2013. It is believed that the elephant was electrocuted by power lines as they walked through fields of growing rice at night . STRSTRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Four elephants die from shoddy electrical wires in Indian forest

VANCOUVER DESI A wild elephant has died after it was electrocuted when it stumbled into low hanging electrical wires in a northeastern Indian forest, according…
Continue Reading »

Indian Lovers Party

Gallery: Weird Indian political party names and symbols

VANCOUVER DESI In a country with over 800 million eligible voters, which symbol you vote for is very important. The largest political parties have simple…
Continue Reading »

worship-India

Six-year-old worshipped for patch of hair on his back that has grown into a tail

VANCOUVER DESI A six-year-old Indian boy is being worshipped by villagers for a small patch of hair on his back that has grown into a…
Continue Reading »

underage-sex-pregnancy-Britain

Opinion: Britain’s youngest mom — 12-year-old — isn’t a case for the midwife, it’s a case for the police

ALLISON PEARSON THE DAILY TELEGRAPH  A girl aged 12 years and three months became Britain’s youngest mother over the weekend. She was still at primary…
Continue Reading »

nude bath

PETA India urges health ministry to ban sale of animal-tested products

IANS New Delhi – Animal rights group PETA has urged India’s health ministry to ban the marketing and sale of animal-tested cosmetics and household products….
Continue Reading »


Bollywood Latest

Porn Queen-desi

Sunny Leone to host MTV reality dating show

IANS New Delhi — Indo-Canadian adult film star Sunny Leone is back to where she started her career in Hindi showbiz – the small screen….
Continue Reading »

Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra showcases a creation by designer Neeta Lulla on the sixth day of the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) summer/resort 2014 in Mumbai on March 16, 2014. STRSTRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Kom shoot harder than hardest for Priyanka

IANS Mumbai  – Months of turmoil for Mary Kom have been “harder than the hardest” for Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, who plays the title role…
Continue Reading »

Bollywood

Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhoothnath Returns screened before Indian president

IANS New Delhi  – Megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s latest film Bhoothnath Returns, a fun-filled film which also highlights the importance of voting, was screened for President…
Continue Reading »