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.


Vaccine could virtually eliminate cervical cancer: study

Transmitted sexually, HPV is extremely common and includes more than 100 types of virus, at least 14 of them cancer-causing. (Shutterstock)
Updated 20 February 2019
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Vaccine could virtually eliminate cervical cancer: study

  • Transmitted sexually, HPV is extremely common and includes more than 100 types of virus, at least 14 of them cancer-causing

PARIS: The rapid scale-up of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine could virtually eliminate cervical cancer in a handful of rich countries within three decades, and in most other nations by century’s end, researchers said Wednesday.
Without screening and HPV vaccination, more than 44 million women will likely be diagnosed with the disease over the next 50 years, they reported in The Lancet Oncology, a medical journal.
Two thirds of these cases — and an estimated 15 million deaths — would occur in low- and medium-income countries.
By contrast, the rapid deployment starting in 2020 of screening and vaccination could prevent more than 13 million cervical cancers by mid-century worldwide, and lower the number of cases to below four-per-100,000 women, the study found.
“This is a potential threshold for considering cervical cancer to be eliminated as a major public health problem,” the authors said in a statement.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 570,000 new cases worldwide in 2018, making it the fourth most common cancer for women after breast, colon and lung cancer.
The disease claims the lives of more than 300,000 women every year, mostly in lower income nations.
“Despite the enormity of the problem, our findings suggest that global elimination is within reach,” said lead author Karen Canfell, a professor at the Cancer Council New South Wales, in Sydney.
Achieving that goal, however, depends on “both high coverage of HPV vaccination and cervical screening,” she added.
Transmitted sexually, HPV is extremely common and includes more than 100 types of virus, at least 14 of them cancer-causing.
The viruses have also been linked to cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina and penis.
It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems. If the immune system is weak or compromised — by HIV infection, for example — the cancer can develop far more quickly.
Clinical trials have shown that HPV vaccines are safe and effective against the two HPV strains — types 16 and 18 — responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases.
The study’s projections presume the vaccination of 80 percent of girls 12 to 15 years old starting in 2020, and that at least 70 percent of women undergo screening twice in their lifetime.
This would push the prevalence of the disease below the bar of 4/100,000 women in countries such as the United States, Canada, Britain and France by 2059, and in mid-income countries such as Brazil and China by 2069, the authors calculate.