Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women after skin cancer. At some stage of life, one in nine women in Pakistan develops breast cancer. And a conservative estimate suggests that about 40,000 of them succumb to the disease every year — the highest mortality rate in Asia. Given the severity of the problem, raising awareness about breast cancer has never been more pronounced than now.
Globally, the month of October is marked as ‘PINKtober’, a drive to raise awareness about the most prevalent cancer among women that claims more than 0.4 million lives every year. Nevertheless, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of deaths is higher in middle-income countries, including Pakistan.
Several factors can be blamed for a rising incidence of breast cancer, but problems in getting access to health services prevent timely detection of the disease. Thankfully, the government has taken a few steps to raise awareness about breast cancer. All elected members of parliament have been urged to mobilize their resources to increase awareness of the life-threatening ailment in their areas in partnership with media outlets and health bodies. An awareness drive in collaboration with private mobile networks has also been initiated. Nevertheless, a steady and rounded effort is vital to curb the prevalence of the disease in the country.
Women should have knowledge of early symptoms for timely treatment, but awareness drives can only come to fruition if adequate investment is also made in elementary healthcare infrastructure and breast cancer screening services. Mammography procedures are often expensive and, given the shambolic health and diagnostic facilities in state hospitals, constitute an impossible out-of-pocket cost for millions of families in the country.
In addition, since females are mostly hit by the disease, their societal roles and the attitudes of men in their own family play a substantial role in their being able to seek help and receive treatment. Furthermore, taboos related to regular screening and breast examination also lead to late diagnosis which contributes to the high death toll.
It’s time the state invested in improving the primary healthcare system while keeping up a consistent awareness drive to be able to effect change in the incidence and morbidity of the fatal disease.