Pakistan goes pink to save breast cancer victims

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A building lit up in pink to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month
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Omer Aftab, founder of the Pink Ribbon Foundation
Updated 29 October 2017
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Pakistan goes pink to save breast cancer victims

ISLAMABAD: There was no awareness of breast cancer in Pakistan until tragedy struck, and it is a man leading the fight after a very personal experience when he lost a friend and colleague to the killer disease.

Omer Aftab, founder of the Pink Ribbon Foundation – a leading initiative in the fight against breast cancer in Pakistan – was a youth activist in 2003 when he lost a female colleague to breast cancer. It was a wake-up call for Aftab, and it led to his decision to raise awareness of the killer disease.

He explained there were up to 90,000 breast cancer cases reported annually in Pakistan, while more than 40,000 women die each year from the disease due to late diagnosis.

Figures indicate that 10.2 million people are at a risk of developing it. Though extremely rare, it can develop at an early age, but advance screening and treatment of the disease has a 90 percent success rate.

“She knew that I was always up for volunteering so she started to discuss it with me. When I got involved, I realized that it’s a very big issue in Pakistan,” Aftab told Arab News.

“When she was undergoing treatment, she realized that even doctors lacked awareness of this issue. She used to read and (consult medical practitioners)… She didn’t survive and died with this disease.”

Pink Ribbon Foundation

Heartbroken, but determined, Aftab founded the Pink Ribbon Foundation in 2003. The initiative works to promote and support women’s empowerment focused on reducing breast cancer mortality through rigorous awareness campaigns, community projects, and access to treatment facilities. But despite his best efforts, he did not expect the stiff resistance he would face in Pakistan – a country that has such a conservative mindset.

“It was quite a challenge. At that time, it was a huge taboo. When we launched the campaign, all the television channels backed out (from supporting). They said the “B” word was too heavy to use on television. Its okay to write it in newspapers and magazines but you can’t talk about it on TV,” he added, pointing out that television, like most countries, enjoys the biggest audiences of all media platforms in Pakistan.

Today the Pink Ribbon Foundation has managed to save countless lives through advocacy, consultation, campaigns, and government-backed awareness programs across the country. The foundation has created a network of breast cancer survivors who can share stories of courage with women suffering from the disease.

Aftab’s efforts have inspired numerous volunteers to join his cause. He has even received the backing of the government that has allowed Pink Ribbon to light up a landmark each October by his initiative.

This year Islamabad’s Parliament House was the landmark that was chosen to be lit up.

Support is growing, with companies also lighting up their buildings in pink. But the journey is far from over for the foundation which continues to fight the myths, misconceptions, often misled cultural and gender beliefs of a country of 207 million people. It is also a country with few diagnosis and treatment facilities available to fight this disease.

Taboos and social stigmas

“There is a gender dimension of health, at a society, state, and household level,” Aftab explained, adding that in Pakistan male health still took priority over that of women. “Breast cancer is seen more as women’s sexuality than health.” Due to this, women are reluctant to get themselves’ checked and if diagnosed, rarely share with family members, who in turn are usually unsupportive he said.

“Unfortunately we have come across cases where women have been diagnosed and are viewed as a liability by their families – especially their husbands.

Genetics also play a key role, and this is another reason why women choose to stay silent. If a close relative has or has had, breast cancer, the risk is higher. Women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have a higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, or both. These genes can be inherited. TP53 is another gene that is linked to a greater breast cancer risk. This leads women to believe that marriages within the family will be affected, Aftab said.

The fight goes on

Pink Ribbon has integrated the issue of breast cancer in the training of more than 100, 000 female health workers across Pakistan at a grass roots level. The initiative has engaged the state and its education commission, building an outreach to more than 200 colleagues and universities just during October.

“We are now setting up Pakistan’s first dedicated breast cancer hospital in Lahore,” Aftab told Arab News and it is in its initial stages of construction.

His personal investment has not been enough to see the medical facility materialize and the foundation seeks public contributions. His plan is to build four more across the country and provide cost free medical care to patients.

Pink Ribbon’s awareness program has seen an increase of 30 percent in patient turnout at breast screening clinics since 2004.

“I am really committed to the cause, and we need to save lives of all our women dying with breast cancer,” says Aftab.


Startup of the Week: For the love of chocolate

Joudy Delights take part in many of Jeddah’s public events. (Supplied)
Updated 11 December 2018
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Startup of the Week: For the love of chocolate

  • The store offers additional flavors every month for a limited time

The love for chocolates transcends geographical boundaries, ideologies and cultures. Chocolates are considered a must in times of happiness and to express one’s feelings all across the world.
Saudis also share the love for sweets or chocolates with rest of the world. People in this part of the world do not mind trying different kinds of chocolates — from traditional Arab ones to their European counterparts from as far as Switzerland.
Keeping in view the huge popularity of chocolates in the Kingdom, a Saudi couple decided to launch their own business in 2017. Joudy Delights is a local, home-based specialized chocolate brand that is produced with the highest quality ingredients. The Jeddah-based store is run by 25-year-old housewife Wejdan Shaheen and 29-year-old private sector employee Rakan Nejaim.
Due to stiff competition in this business, it is necessary for an entrepreneur to come up with a novel idea so as to gain an edge over his competitors.
The couple, faced with the same dilemma, chose to introduce a delicious dessert in the market.
“Any new idea needs to go through a lot of experiments. We also had to face the situation when we decided to introduce our famous chocoballs. The finalized version of the product took some time. We had to carefully select the best combination of chocolate and suitable stuffing,” said Nejaim.
Joudy Delights offers milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate that are filled with two types of different chocolates and two types of biscuits which Shaheen calls their “secret mix.”
The store also offers additional flavors every month for a limited time.
“The milk chocolate chocoballs or what we call our original chocoballs is our most popular product,” said Shaheen.
The number of orders per week differs depending on the season, said Nejaim. “But we receive on an average 65-70 orders per week.”
Joudy Delights take part in many of Jeddah’s public events.
“Many of our clients prefer our products at family gatherings like weddings etc.,” Shaheen said.
The store is planning to expand its reach outside Jeddah, and is likely to introduce a delivery service. Joudy Delights can be found at local Saudi talent shop Crate, located in Al-Salamah district.