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

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.

Expert calls for self-examination for early detection of breast cancer

One in every eight women will suffer from breast cancer in her lifetime. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 October 2018

Expert calls for self-examination for early detection of breast cancer

  • Women in Saudi Arabia have become more aware of the disease and receive support from their families

JEDDAH: In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Amel Merdad is providing a helpful guide about the disease to women .
Recent statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that more than 1.2 million breast cancer cases are diagnosed worldwide each year. Breast cancer kills more than 500,000 women a year. The disease ranks second in cancer incidence, after lung cancer, worldwide.
One in every eight women will breast cancer in her lifetime.
The evolution of scientific research and increased awareness have contributed significantly to the increase in recovery rates, as a result of early detection of the disease.
Ten percent of breast cancer cases occur as a result of genetic mutations inherited by the generations in a family.
The incidence of breast cancer increases with age, and it usually occurs after age 40. The average age of breast cancer patients in Saudi Arabia is 48 years and it is so worldwide. Dr. Merdad provided her advice on early screening methods. “Periodic self-breast examination helps women to be aware and familiar with their breasts so they can take care of them, being healthy and not only pretty.
Dr. Merdad added that self-breast examination is to be done once a month on the sixth or seventh day of the menstrual cycle from the age of 20 and forward. “In the case of menopause, self-examination takes place on the same date every month,” she said.
She also gave these useful guidelines:

Self testing
Stand in front of the mirror and look at the breasts to check for anything unusual, such as the presence of lumps or differences in the size of the breasts or the presence of swelling or changes in skin or nipple.
Put your hands behind your head to notice in the mirror for any difference in the lower part of your breasts. Put your hands on your waist and bend forward slightly with the pressure of the shoulders and elbows forward to check for any change in the shape or size of the breasts.
Lift your left hand and use three fingers from the right hand to examine the left breast in a circular way from the outer edge of the breast and in the direction of the nipple, focusing on the area between the breast and armpit and area under the armpit.
Repeat this step with your right breast. Press the nipple gently to observe any abnormal discharge. Repeat the previous steps while lying on your back.

Age 20-40 years old: Self-examination is recommended monthly. Also check with your doctor every three years. An ultrasound is recommended for the breast examination only if necessary.
Age 40-65 years: Self-examination is recommended monthly and check with the doctor every year. Mammograms are indicated once every one to two years for all women.
More than 65 years: Monthly self-examination and check with your doctor annually. Schedule a mammogram every two to five years.
Dr. Merdad said that taking care of a woman psychologically plays an important role in enhancing the cure rate.
“To all women. Protect your health, have a great life, and screen yourselves for breast cancer,” she added.