Fighting the stigma around breast cancer

Patients need all the support they can get, from their husbands and the community

A radiology technician checks the computer inside a mobile mammogram clinic (Silvia Razgova / The National)
Powered by automated translation

A diagnosis of breast cancer is one of the most frightening experiences a woman can have. The discovery of a lump or changes to the skin on or around the breast – which could be cancer symptoms – can make them fear the worst. Coupled with these very real fears of what could happen next, and how far modern medicine is able to treat the disease, is a much more emotional component. And as The National reported this week, that is too often keeping women from seeking the treatment they need.

Many misconceptions exist about breast cancer, and there is something of a community taboo surrounding the disease. Some of the women interviewed for a study conducted by UAE University said they were blamed for somehow bringing it on themselves, or felt that they would be shunned by the community if it were known that they had cancer. Others were afraid of the effect of the disease on their self-esteem, and on their relationships with their husbands and other family members. One woman said she was told by her family that the disease was “a punishment from God”. Others said they had no support from their husbands after being diagnosed, and some feared abandonment. Nobody who is facing the challenge presented by cancer should have to face this sort of emotional pressure as well.

All of the women interviewed, aged between 35 and 70, sought treatment late. In one case, it was three years late. The good news is that there is anecdotal evidence that more women are now open to discussing the disease among themselves. According to Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women and Children, more are coming forward to seek treatment. The hospital is also seeing increasing rates of early detection.

Bringing this discussion out of the dark is essential to demystifying cancer. Activities such as the Pink Caravan during October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, are very important. Women must be encouraged to look for signs of cancer, have regular mammograms and seek professional support. But there is also a need for campaigns teaching husbands how to support their wives. Another element is promoting the idea of former cancer patients as survivors, not victims. The latter carries disempowering connotations.

Ultimately, nothing should stop any woman with cancer symptoms from seeking treatment as early as possible.