the biggest issues preventing women from seeking treatment or even knowing about the disease. During an awareness event in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, female students attending a breast cancer lecture demanded the men leave.
“It will take very long for us to discuss these issues openly,” said one female student who requested anonymity because she feared her family wouldn’t like her speaking about the issue.
Another challenge is Pakistan’s abysmal health care sector that is starved for money, the latest technology and drugs. Oncologist Saira Hasan at Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad said most major hospitals lack a screening centre or mammogram facility. Many patients first go to a traditional healer and by the time they visit a reputable doctor, the disease is often too far advanced to treat, Hasan said.
Women in the developing world, like Pakistan, tend to die at greater rates than in more developed countries because the disease is generally detected later and health care options aren’t as good.
Hasan said several factors have contributed to the rise in the disease — above all the cultural taboos. Breast cancer survivor Sameera Raja, who owns an art gallery in southern Karachi and supports women facing breast cancer, says that it has to be changed. “You’re surprised to hear how women actually sit on things,” Raja said. Recalling how a woman would feel too embarrassed to talk about it even with her husband, she said: “Don’t hide behind closed doors.”
Unlike in the US where celebrities like singer Sheryl Crow or actress Christina Applegate have freely discussed their fight with breast cancer, few such public figures have come forward in Pakistan. That’s changed with Mirza, though she had to delay her treatment for three months after she was diagnosed in March 2012 to handle her work, which included how to rule on whether a criminal conviction against the serving prime minister should disqualify him from politics. “There was lot of pressure on me, work pressure,” she said. “Everybody (would) say it’s an excuse I’m using to run away.”
Mirza described her friends and family being shocked by the diagnosis. But during her diagnosis and treatment, she attended international conferences, ruled on the then PM’s case, ran for re-election and won while undergoing chemotherapy. She now uses her position in parliament to advocate for women’s health issues. She plans to propose a bill making it mandatory for women to have breast cancer screenings and mammograms