LIKE so many other issues relating to women’s health in Pakistan, breast cancer is not a subject of serious discussion in the country, largely on account of social taboos. Breast cancer mortality rates in Pakistan are said to be the highest in Asia. The extent of its prevalence can be gauged by the fact that at least 90,000 new cases are diagnosed every year in the country and, annually, some 40,000 women succumb to it. This might just be the tip of the iceberg when one considers that most women are reluctant to talk about any abnormality in their breasts or to seek medical assistance. It is tragic that a large number of women should succumb to a largely treatable — especially if detected early — disease just because they were ashamed to talk about it with doctors.

October is observed across the world as the month of breast cancer awareness. It is among the most prevalent cancers in the world, and the most common in women. According to the WHO, breast cancer caused around 685,000 deaths worldwide in 2020 and 2.3m women were diagnosed with it. Though awareness about the disease in Pakistan has witnessed an improvement in urban areas where there is greater education and better health facilities, not much has changed for the rural poor who can only turn to understaffed and ill-equipped dispensaries or Basic Health Units for medical assistance. A number of public and private buildings have been lit up pink this month, while the government has also launched an awareness campaign via a recorded message on mobile networks. But that is not enough. The government should launch a nation-wide free screening campaign in collaboration with private hospitals, at least in the month of October, for the early detection of new cases. The assurance that female medical staff would conduct the screening may encourage more women to get themselves checked. A national cancer registry is also needed so that all cases become part of the public record for effective policymaking.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2021

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