WITH 83,000 women diagnosed annually with breast cancer in this country, social taboos, lack of health facilities and the absence of a national cancer policy are among the challenges that must be overcome to stall the progress of this disease. October, as breast cancer awareness month, is a reminder that Pakistan has the highest rate of breast cancer in Asia: 40,000 women succumb to this disease annually. These statistics should be enough to push the government into taking action. All women must have access to prevention and treatment methods, including screening options. Disseminating information on causative factors (such as a rise in obesity levels and lack of physical activity) through sustained messaging on television, radio and social media could reduce the mortality rate. In the past, successive governments were reluctant to launch awareness campaigns given pressure from conservative elements. This must change; if detected early, the breast cancer can often be successfully treated. Also Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital, a state-of-the-art centre for cancer treatment and research — the brainchild of the prime minister himself — could serve as a blueprint for the federal government to share with provincial health authorities. Advocacy without action would be disastrous, given that investment in healthcare facilities and infrastructure forms an essential component of the UN’s 2030 SDG agenda to which Pakistan is signatory.
Tackling the underlying causes of breast cancer through the SDGs is one way to reduce the disease burden. A holistic approach is advantageous because most development goals are intrinsically linked to improving women’s health prospects. In other words, to achieve gender equality, alleviate poverty and improve nutrition outcomes, the government must focus on women and child health. That women who breastfeed reduce their risk of breast cancer is a well-documented fact; breastfeeding also has the added benefit of reducing infant mortality. However, breast cancer treatment is possible only with upgraded hospital services that are adequately funded. Cutting funds for healthcare in the name of austerity is thus a huge disservice to women’s wellbeing.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018