Pakistan ranks poorly in the Human Development Index (HDI) – 161 out of 192 countries. Life expectancy in the country is 66 years as compared to the average life expectancy of 72.6 years. This situation is mostly because of a lopsided healthcare structure with no urgency on the government’s part to fix it. While all people are affected by Pakistan’s dismal performance in the health sector, women suffer more mostly because women-specific diseases are rarely talked about. Breast cancer is one such disease that remains undiagnosed for a long time (or at least when it is in the initial stages and treatable) partly due to the fact that women’s pain and body changes are rarely acknowledged. Every October, the world observes the entire month as an awareness month for breast cancer. In Pakistan, a woman’s body is a taboo subject, leading to such poor awareness even among women regarding their own bodies. As a result, most women do not go through the regular screenings required for early diagnosis.
Incidents of breast cancer are increasing – and this is not limited to Pakistan. According to the Global Cancer Observatory (GCO), 11 per cent of all cancer cases around the world were that of breast cancer. Local media reports from Pakistan suggest that at least 25,000 new cases were reported in 2020 across the country. This number is contested as some estimates shared by local organizations suggest that Pakistan sees an addition of 90,000 new breast cancer cases every year. The fact is that breast cancer is mostly treatable – if detected at earlier stages. And for that, women have to be encouraged for regular screening. The latest research also suggests that AI can play a big role in detecting breast cancers (even when a doctor fails to give the diagnosis). While such advancements are heartening, it is certain that their entry in every corner of Pakistan will be too late. Scientific advancements are mostly adopted by privately run hospitals which are unaffordable for a large majority, leaving a large portion of the population without access to the care they deserve and desperately need. At the government level, there are no steps to both recognize and use technology in healthcare.
So far, what the government has done is to use a mobile phone-based approach to spread the message around. At every call, it runs a public-service message regarding breast cancer throughout October. However, such messages are easy to miss and do not guarantee that they will reach the right audience. There has to be a massive public service campaign to inform people about the symptoms of breast cancer, the precautionary measures they can take to protect themselves, and how to get tested. Free screening tests should be offered to those who cannot afford them, especially in rural areas. We have only 15 days left of this ‘awareness month’. The government still has time to save women from this deadly disease and offer programmes that help them in early detection and treatment.