Ribbons are worn, marathons are run and sportsmen and celebrities alike are made to wear pink. What these campaigns do provide, however, is the best defence against the disease: early detection and awareness, and emotional support — considered by some as half the battle — as well as, in some cases, financial support. Cancer awareness campaigns, therefore, have been a raging success in most parts of the world, especially with the advent of social media and communications technologies.
The internet provides easy access to information and support, often provided by online communities of cancer patients, survivors and patients’ families.
Facebook users often share status updates and pictures to display their solidarity with cancer patients in their battle against the disease, while #Pinktober (October being the month for breast cancer awareness) is currently trending on Twitter.
However, in Pakistan, the disease is still a hush-hush topic that many are uncomfortable talking about even though this country has one of the highest incidents of breast cancer in Asia.
It is estimated that one in nine Pakistani women will develop breast cancer at some stage of their life.
The biggest problem, says Mahira Khan, actor, prominent activist and fundraiser for Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, is that people in Pakistan are shy and reluctant to talk about the disease. “People aren’t even comfortable with saying the word ‘breast’ out loud,” says Mahira, who has attended many interactive seminars and events across the country to raise awareness about breast cancer.
While online activism for cancer is relatively low in Pakistan, there are still some troopers who are determined to raise awareness and create programmes and Apps in an effort to continue raising awareness.
“We wanted to create a way for women to understand how they can [conduct self-exam to detect symptoms of breast cancer], learn more about the disease and, at the same time, provide a useful tool to actually help women remember to take the exam each month,” says Sophia Sheikh, who, along with actor and model Aamina Sheikh, has initiated a project to develop a mobile App, titled You Matter.
“We opted to go down the mobile app route for two reasons. Firstly, not all women, especially those from more conservative backgrounds, who live with male family members feel comfortable with printed material lying around. It’s also not something that people would air on television or on the radio either. Secondly, smart phones are on the rise and tend to be a personal device that most of us carry with us all the time. It therefore seemed to be the perfect way to present this information without causing awkwardness, yet at the same time easy to access, share information and allow for regular alerts.”
The app contains basic information on breast cancer, ways to minimise risks and a step-by-step guide on how and when to perform a self-exam, as well as some stats on breast cancer. It also includes an option to set an alert for self-exams, as well as ‘share’ features and a video message from Aamina in Urdu and English.
“We’ve added a basic info-gathering component, which is completely anonymous, but can help collate some stats on breast cancer based on age, genetics and location, which app users can opt to provide other users,” says Sophia.
According to Sophia, with her decade-long career in marketing and the media, as well as experience in packaging mobile phone apps, and with Aamina’s presence in the media and brand connections, joining hands in creating such a project was perfect for making a difference.
However, owning a smart phone is a luxury most people in Pakistan cannot afford. Acknowledging this fact, Sophia says, “We felt if we could create awareness amongst even a small number of women, and get them to understand the gravity of breast cancer and the fact that early detection is so vital to help survival, then hopefully this can have a viral effect and they will pass on information to other women they come into contact with.”
The English version of You Matter has been submitted to the Apple store, soon to be followed by the Urdu version. It will be available for download later this month.
Similarly, the SKMCH&RC also has its own mobile phone app, complete with access to information and options to donate, schedule appointment and provide feedback.
Other platforms can be found on Facebook, which has a number of local pages dedicated to support groups. Most notable out of these is titled Cancer Support Group Pakistan. The project, started in 2012, was initiated by a few students of the Ayub Medical College, Abbottabad, and has expanded membership to other medical colleges as well. “We believe that in addition to proper treatment and therapy, cancer patients long for vigilant care and pampering. Therefore, the CSGPians aim is to extend full support and aid to the sufferers and their families. We intend to do this by the massive support of our members, alongside collaborating with other social groups willing to lend a hand”, states the group’s ‘about us’ description. However, although members of the page remain active, it only has about 500 likes.
Another website worth noting is www.blood.pk — a user-friendly website through which people can register as donors and provide blood in emergency cases as well as for cancer patients.
While Pakistan slowly, but surely, catches up with the rest of the world as far as online activism of cancer in concerned, it’s important to realise that one doesn’t need a visa to connect to the world via the Internet. International support groups such as Macmillan and Cancer Research UK provide adequate information as well as support of all kinds, in order to defeat the disease and win the battle.