By Iqra Sarfaraz & Adeela Akmal
Tue, 10, 18

The Breast Cancer Awareness Month, marked in countries across the world every October, helps to increase attention and support for the awareness of the disease. You! takes a look...

The Breast Cancer Awareness Month, marked in countries across the world every October, helps to increase attention and support for the awareness of the disease. You! takes a look...

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer that mainly affects women. It develops from the breast tissue and if left undetected and untreated, the disease can spread to other areas of the body as well. Given the high incidence and destructive nature of breast cancer, early prevention and treatment of this disease is a high priority. It is due to this fact that spreading awareness of breast cancer has become a necessity and the month of October is dedicated to the cause. Observing breast cancer awareness month, this week You! highlights a few breast cancer survivors and shares initiatives working to combat against the disease...

Facing it head-on

Shakeela Naveed (56) was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 when she felt a lump in her chest. However, after receiving treatment, she was then living a cancer free life. Unfortunately, the cancer recurred in 2017 in her liver for which she is now getting weekly chemotherapy sessions.

“When I first found out that I had breast cancer, I was very afraid. But, I had three children in front of me, for whom I had to stay strong. For them, I thought of cancer as if it were merely a cough or flu. The support of my family has been paramount in this journey. They have stood by my side through everything from chemo to radio, but never treated me like a sick person. However, there were times when I would get really anxious and would often cry. My doctors had even advised me to let it all out if I felt too overwhelmed. But again, without the love and support of my family it wouldn’t have been so easy, including during the hair loss and the sarcastic comments from people,” shares Shakeela Naveed.

Cancer is not just a disease that affects one person, it impacts everyone closely related to them. Shakeela’s daughter, Shafaq, also shared an insight about how insensitive people have been despite knowing the distress they had been in. “The medicine and treatment for cancer is pricy and the doctors don’t start treatment before getting paid, which is standard. Apart from recommending prayers and totkas, people were suggesting my mother to not get chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is already really intense and toxic, so it doesn’t help if someone tells the patient to quit taking medication.

While we would never let our mother feel bad about her hair by asking her to wear a wig or anything, but people would often ask about the hair loss, however, she covers her head now. It is so upsetting when people judge you on appearances. People think of cancer as STD or something communicable which needs to be clarified,” laments Shafaq.

A triumph over breast cancer

Arzoo Saltanat is a native of Gilgit, a mountainous region to the north of Pakistan. For the last three years, an ordeal had overshadowed Arzoo’s life: her fight against cancer. She seemed too delicate to have fought off cancer, and too young to have been diagnosed with it in the first place. While she had detected something unusual in her breasts, she ignored the symptoms of her illness for several months, unaware of the risk of breast cancer. She had been busy pursuing her job and professional interests in Karachi, after moving from Gilgit in 2008. Finally, at the insistence of her younger sister, she had a check-up at Aga Khan University Hospital which revealed her cancer. Dr Shaista, her physician, recommended surgery and went as far as speaking to Arzoo’s parents, in order to motivate her to start treatment for the illness.

Arzoo was very scared after she heard her diagnosis. “I had heard so much about the side effects of chemotherapy, that I said I would rather die than undergo the treatment! But, with the encouragement and support of my doctor and my family, I continued my treatment and then the follow-up visits for the next three years,” she shares.

Her fight against cancer was no less than climbing a mountain in her native Gilgit. She received multiple surgeries, lost her breast, had to undergo twelve sessions of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy and regular injections. She was also assisted financially by the ‘Patient Welfare Programme’ when the cost of the treatment was too high for her family to bear. Finally, she made it. The doctors say that everything is now perfectly fine as the tests are coming clear. Returning to normalcy, Arzoo is now pursuing a career in fashion designing, “Look after your body. Have regular check-ups and seek professional help immediately if you feel that something is wrong. Don’t ignore symptoms, as I did. I did not know what the consequences of ignoring my health would be.”

Pink Ribbon Pakistan

Since 2004 Pink Ribbon Pakistan, a project of Women’s Empowerment Group and a non-funded, self-sustained campaign, has been working actively to create awareness regarding breast cancer. Since October is celebrated as cancer awareness month worldwide, Pink Ribbon plans to reach to the masses at large and make them aware of the risk factors, causes, early detection and treatment of breast cancer that is killing 40,000 women annually in Pakistan.

This year, Pink Ribbon Pakistan has launched its nationwide breast cancer awareness drive with #SaveThe9th theme that hinges around sensitising the society to support the charity in building Pakistan’s first dedicated breast cancer hospital.

Speaking at the launching press conference of #SaveThe9th at Karachi Press Club, Omer Aftab, CEO of Pink Ribbon, said, “Breast Cancer is a silent killer and it is prying on thousands of women every year. We need to be aware, stay alert and make serious efforts to stop this rampage. Every 9th woman in Pakistan at high risk of breast cancer, we have built this PINKtober campaign around this hashtag in order to urge the people to rise up to the accelerating menace of this fatal disease and help Pink Ribbon completing our hospital where 40,000 patients will be provided free of cost or subsidised treatment of international standards every year.”

Omer also underlined the key activities Pink Ribbon would do throughout October. It includes an extensive nationwide Youth Programme, outdoor activations, digital drive, illuminations of historic buildings, a full-fledged media campaign and many other ATLs & BTLs.

The project, in collaboration with Higher Education Commission (HEC) runs an all-encompassing youth awareness drive every year. Pink Ribbon teams reach out to more than 200 colleges and universities across the country and train about 0.2 million young girls on Breast Self-Examination (BSE) and breast cancer prevention.

Unfolding the Youth Programme, Omer told, “Youth are the torchbearers of a change and we provide young girls with the training of BSE so that they not only stay on-guard about breast cancer but also help their elders and other women of their vicinities to get detected on time.”

He revealed that the chances of survival in Breast Cancer are 80 per cent if diagnosed at an early stage, but majority of the women in Pakistan do not resort to BSE methods, breast screening and mammogram.

First breast cancer care centre & Lady Aitchison Hospital

Currently, in Pakistan there are fragmented efforts for screening and early detection of breast cancer. There is an initiative on the part of Federal government and the first dedicated breast cancer care centre established in Islamabad in 2014, followed by the second at Lady Aitchison Hospital, Lahore in 2017. These two centres aim at cost-free community based mass breast screening programme.

The prevalence of breast cancer in Pakistan is the highest among all the Asian nations and the major cause is people’s reluctance to accept it as a serious disease and unavailability of healthcare facilities. Initiatives like this are likely to be a one-stop solution for breast cancer diagnostics and treatment.