“Four years ago, the female audience attending my live morning show would hesitate while using words related to the breast,” recalls public speaker and host Sidra Iqbal. “The fact that we are now able to discuss the disease freely is an indication of how far we have come.”
Sidra is speaking of her experiences as a host of the Aaj Pakistan morning show which airs on the channel Aaj News. The show sporadically features conversations focusing on breast cancer, with victims of the disease, survivors, doctors as well as the general public discussing their fears and ordeals.
“There was a time when our editorial team would be concerned about the language of such a culturally sensitive subject,” Sidra says, “but not anymore.”
Begum Samina Alvi, wife of President Arif Alvi, opted to use Sidra’s show for launching her personal initiative of a countrywide breast cancer awareness campaign. Over time, the show also unearthed and tried to dismantle a number of myths surrounding the disease. According to Sidra, it was discussed on the show how a lot of women, on discovering lumps in their breasts, allowed them to go undiagnosed simply because they felt too ‘ashamed’ to go for a check-up. In many households, a lump in the breast was believed to indicate that the woman had been promiscuous.
Is it enough to merely create awareness regarding breast cancer by wearing a pink ribbon? Highlighting the problem isn’t enough, we need to provide a solution as well
Often, women living in far-flung villages would not consider their health important enough and would be unwilling to travel to the city and undergo treatment. Moreover, many men would leave their wives when they found out that they could possibly have cancer, simply because they didn’t want to shoulder the expenses of treatment, or take care of them.
“It also came to our knowledge that a lot of women also fear that they will become infertile after having contracted breast cancer,” says Sidra, “but there is enough proof that, with the aid of medical intervention, their fertility will stay intact and they are most likely to be able to have children.”
Sidra’s public diplomacy initiative by Serena Hotels, Raabta, is now in its fifth year and spearheads an annual breast cancer event every October, which is open to the public and features medical experts and cancer survivors in its forum.
In this year’s event, Sidra moderated a conversation with Dr Abida Sattar, Head of Breast Surgery at the Aga Khan University Hospital and Dr Ayesha Ishani, head of the federal breast cancer screening centre at PIMS, with Begum Samina Alvi attending as a keynote speaker.
Sidra’s friend, screenwriter Asma Nabeel, a breast cancer champion who sadly succumbed to the cancer last year, was a major impetus, prompting her to raise awareness regarding the disease.
“I got a mammogram done for the first time earlier this year,” says Sidra, “and all women need to understand the importance of mammography. By the time a woman feels a lump in her breast, it is around the size of a small ball, but the mammogram picks up the tiniest of lumps and makes it possible to detect cancer in its early stage, when it is more easily curable.”
Sidra, along with stylist Alishay Adnan, women’s wear designer Mariyam D. Rizwan, journalist Momina Sibtain, Dr Saadia Virk, CEO of Karachi’s South City Hospital and publicist Pheby Haroon were part of a collaborative campaign by Icon in recognition of October — ‘Pink’tober — the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness.
What is the point, though, of several women dressing in pink and being part of a photo shoot? How does the imagery connect to breast cancer?
Journalist Momina Sibtain points out that any collaboration centred around breast cancer helps in removing the cultural taboo attached to discussions about the disease.
“The breast is just a normal body part but there are stigmas attached to getting a thorough medical check-up. A lot of women around me have battled breast cancer but, even though it is a largely prevalent disease, we are yet to normalise talking about it,” she laments.
Women’s wear designer Alishay Adnan and publicist Pheby Haroon also strongly felt that it was important, as representatives of their respective fields, to align themselves with the cause of raising breast cancer awareness, while Mariyam D. Rizwan is also looking into launching fundraising activities that would aid the cause.
However, is creating awareness regarding breast cancer enough? Dr Saadia Virk paints a dark but realistic scenario. “Creating awareness regarding any disease has to be aligned with the availability of proper medical care for treating that disease,” she says. “Pakistan’s population of 220 million only has access to five or six trained, experienced breast cancer specialists.
“The pomp and show of fundraising activities and awareness campaigns loses its impact if an individual, who has contracted the disease, has nowhere to go for its cure. Highlighting a problem isn’t enough, you need to provide a solution.”
Dr Sadia continues: “There is a dire need for healthcare services to be planned by experienced professionals. Structured training programmes need to be set up. The government sector needs to work alongside the private sector, private hospital doctors need to be made duty-bound to train government doctors and, slowly, through planning and implementation, the health services in Pakistan can improve.
“The treatment of cancer cannot be a half-baked process. I myself am a cancer survivor and the only reason I’m alive today is that I had the means to travel abroad and get treated properly. A patient who comes to a hospital for treatment comes with a lot of faith in the doctor and the medical hospital. Unfortunately in Pakistan, at this point, that patient is likely to get treated by an inexperienced, untrained professional. This is the case in the treatment of any kind of cancer including that of the breast.”
Dr Sadia adds: “We have to understand: are we doing people a disservice by creating awareness regarding a disease but not providing them with the medical aid necessary to combat the disease.”
It’s an important point to ponder over. October may be Breast Cancer Awareness month but the debilitating effects of a disease that is likely to inflict one in every three women need to be addressed beyond a month.
The necessity of regular breast check-ups, an awareness regarding the disease across all sections of society and, more significantly, the availability of specialised healthcare are important aspects for which solutions need to be devised.
As we bid goodbye to the month of October this year, let us remind you once again that there’s so much more to ‘Pink’tober than merely wearing a pink ribbon in solidarity.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, October 30th, 2022