Breast Cancer: Let’s start with the words

A few years ago, I went to a restaurant where the waiter turned the deepest beetroot shade of red when I requested for a grilled chicken breast. I’d said the word breast and this had sent him shuddering. Unluckily for many chicken around this country the world chicken breast is graining traction and respect and familiarity. It no longer conjures up images of a busty blonde.

Unluckily for about 40,000 women in this country that die of breast cancer every year, this word is still not appropriate to use in whatever mode or language for the mammary glands of a woman because it is shameful and dishonourable in society to do so. Thousands of the staggering number above could have been saved with what is a routine breast self-exam that can early-detect a tumour in time for a life to be saved. Breast self-exams are a simple technique of rubbing your breast, possibly in the shower, clockwise and anti-clockwise with your hand arched behind your shoulder and elbow pointing to the ceiling. Just this simple check on a routine basis is needed, and yet there is hardly any awareness of this self-exam.

Women, particularly in rural areas feel lumps when they’ve overgrown and metastasised already. They gather the courage to report it even later, when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. Again rural women are very susceptible because they often store coins and paper money as well as essentials in their bras for safety. This puts them at greater risk.

Pakistani women are also deathly afraid of going to treat their lumps because they will become sexually undesirable, the only one currency they think their worth is measured in. For many in the west, Angelina Jolie’s full mastectomy made the procedure much more acceptable but for a woman in Thar, her role model was her aunt who died of breast cancer, not the woman in some faraway land who battled it.

The prevalence of breast cancer in women in Pakistan is among the worst in the world, yet hardly anyone ever is talking about it. There should be posters in public restrooms and public service announcements on television rather than the myriad of ads that show women as subservient likeable beings. It is the tyranny of likability that gets women to fear creating trouble for the family if the lump they feel, turns out to be cancer. Women are swamped with signals from family that they are already much trouble and they don’t want to burden anyone further, financially or socially.

This is a victim-blaming culture to begin with. A woman with breast cancer has got to be up to no good, no shred of doubt. There are many reasons women are dying because of honour in this country, having cancer in their breasts should not be one of them. Cancer, if detected early, is just as curable as dengue or cholera. Let’s not call women corpses until they are. Doing away with cancer lumps in breasts or doing away with the whole breast should not be more jarring than an appendix operation. Women before they can be identified as sexual beings, need to be beings first, and if a part of their body revolts against them, well then it needs to go.

Some brilliant people together with the pink ribbon campaigners lit up the Jinnah mausoleum pink for breast cancer awareness. It would also help if we can now stop defining women by their sexuality and then limiting their health procedures by it. All women must carry out regular breast self-exams, the men in their lives must reassure them that when or if women lose their breasts to cancer, they don’t lose their dignity and self worth. The young girls must be taught new curriculum to guard against this disease whose cause is more likely to be ignorance than metastasising cells.

At the least let us be able to say the two words together before we can cure it out of Pakistan: breast cancer.

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