October tends to be swathed in shades of pink. As the official month designated for spreading ‘Breast Cancer Awareness’, it’s a time when the ‘pink ribbon’ becomes a frequent sight on the print and electronic media.
The colour of the ribbon — worn in honour of survivors, in remembrance of fatalities and in acknowledgement of the efforts being made to combat the disease — becomes the palette of choice at countless events, fashion shoots, TV shows, et al. These are all reminders that the damage wreaked by breast cancer around the world is real, and the need to create awareness about it is essential.
I have often wondered, though, how an aesthetically pleasing event or fashion shoot can help the cause of breast cancer. How can a group of women in designer-wear, coiffured and primped up, symbolise the desperation felt by a woman suffering from breast cancer, who may not be able to get herself treated because the people around her associate ‘shame’ with her disease?
It is a question that I posed to classical dancer and social activist Sheema Kermani, who I reached out to with regards to a breast cancer campaign that she was recently a part of. Organised by Shaheen Khan, creative director and CEO at clothing label Khanz, the campaign featured six women associated with diverse genres within media: Shaheen herself, Sheema and Farah Haq, Huma Baqai, Anushae Tariq and Zahra Khan. They all wore pink, of course.
According to a report, Pakistan has the highest prevalence of breast cancer among women in South Asia. Can campaigns to raise awareness about it help in dealing with the stigma that prevents so many from even seeking treatment?
“Every voice matters,” Sheema told Icon. “I feel that as much awareness needs to be generated, in as many ways as possible. Breast cancer is the cause of death for so many women and, yet, I feel that it isn’t given enough importance in our society, simply because women aren’t given enough importance.
“Women’s lives matter but, for a farmer working in a village, the lives of his cattle probably hold more meaning than the life of his wife. Should the cattle die, he will lose his livelihood. Should his wife die, he will just get another one! The issue is so important that awareness needs to be created about it, however possible.
“I also feel strongly about this cause because I have seen my sister and two very close friends grappling with the disease. The pain always hits harder when it is endured by someone close to you,” says Sheema.
For women’s wear designer Shaheen Khan, associating her brand with the disease went ‘beyond pink’.
“My brand attached itself to the Pink Ribbon Foundation about a year ago and I came up with this collection because I wanted the association to be meaningful,” she says. “The clothes have been entirely created by women, entirely hand-woven, hand-crafted and hand-dyed. The fabric is 100 percent pure and 30 percent of the proceeds from the sales will be donated to the Pink Ribbon Foundation.”
But does a glamorous all-pink shoot suffice as a way of creating awareness about breast cancer? “Of course not,” says Shaheen, “but hopefully it might initiate a thought process, it might do its part in highlighting the importance of prevention, care and early detection of breast cancer. A lot of women don’t even know that they have contracted the disease until it has reached its very last stage and, now, even breast cancer among men is on the rise.”
She continues: “I deeply admire all the women featured in the shoot. They all have strong voices in their particular genres, and I feel that they can make a positive impact, spreading the message further.”
She adds, “I also have great respect for Zahra Khan, who is a breast cancer survivor, now running her own cheesecake business. She is so strong and so inspirational, talking about the disease and giving other women the will to fight breast cancer. I pray for her and other women who are struggling with the disease.”
For Zahra, a breast cancer survivor who has created the Instagram account @heybreastie dedicated to creating awareness regarding the disease, it was important to make sure that the shoot was in alignment with the cause.
“I really appreciated the fact that Shaheen was going to be donating some of the proceeds to the Pink Ribbon Foundation,” says Zahra. “It is important to note that, while creating awareness about breast cancer is important, it is also very necessary to provide the medical means of treating it for women who are unable to afford a cure.”
Zahra discovered that she had contracted second-stage breast cancer while doing a random self-check in early 2022. She was just 30. “I felt completely healthy, mentally and physically, but when I found a lump in my breast, I decided to get it checked,” she recalls.
“It turned out that the lump was five centimetres large and I had second stage breast cancer. Of course, when you hear the word ‘cancer’ you freak out but, to be honest, I am not a very paranoid person. I felt healthy and I was confident that I wasn’t going to die. I just wanted to undergo treatment and get better. It was tougher for my family, who were very worried for me. But I think it was my attitude that got me through the difficult times.”
“We not only need women to be aware of the importance of detection and cure, we need to counsel entire families. I have seen men leave their wives when they lose their hair, their breasts. How is that okay?”
She continues: “All through my treatment, I felt gratitude for the blessings that came my way. I kept working and didn’t take a break. My office people were very supportive and my health insurance allowed me to easily pay for the treatment, which is very expensive. The doctor I went to — one of the very best specialists in Karachi — allowed walk-ins at the time and I was so lucky to just be able to get through to her.
“Also, my husband stood by me. We moved into my mother’s home because I would be needing help during treatment, and I didn’t encounter any of the useless cultural apprehensions attached to a man living with his in-laws. My cancer was a very aggressive one and, ultimately, I had to make the decision of getting my breasts removed and going flat. My husband supported me throughout. My health came first, before any societal notions of what was considered ‘womanly’.
“I know that I am very lucky,” she admits. “While I was getting radiation done at the hospital, a woman asked me if my husband had ‘allowed’ me to get treatment. It made me sad. Why would a woman need permission from her spouse to get cured from a life-threatening disease?
“It was traumatic, of course, losing my hair, losing my breasts, undergoing very aggressive treatments. At the same time, though, I was very thankful for the support of my family. I like to consider myself a ‘breast cancer thriver’, rather than just a survivor, because I feel that my life really thrived while I was fighting the disease. Till earlier this year, I was working as a Senior Strategist at [advertising agency] JWT Grey, but I have now left my job to focus on my cheesecake business full-time.
“It took me nine months to get completely better and my Instagram page charted my journey and my thoughts. I particularly launched the page because I wanted to give out the message that women need to be more confident about making life-saving decisions.”
Dr Huma Baqai, professor and rector of the Millennium Institute of Technology and Entrepreneurship (Mite) — where this shoot also took place — is similarly passionate about removing the stigma of shame from the disease, and enabling women to be more confident about seeking cure.
“For every one woman who gets treated, there are 10 who do not,” she points out. “I have come face to face with women close to me whose treatment got delayed because they associated shame with the word ‘breast’. It is a part of the body — why does it always have to be seen from a sexual context?
“It’s high time that we did away with these taboos. Menstrual pain is real. A woman’s breast hurting is real. There are parts of Pakistan where so much shame is associated with this disease that it never gets treated, and the deaths of women suffering from it never even get recorded.”
She adds: “I come from a patriarchal family and, at my age, I now feel comfortable talking about it openly, but there was a time when I would hesitate. Efforts need to be made towards changing mindsets, and we need to educate people about breast cancer from a very young age.
“I want to see a bald news anchor come on TV, who is undergoing chemotherapy. I want TV narratives to include stories about women contracting the disease. I hope that the treatment for this disease gets normalised to that extent. And we not only need women to be aware of the importance of detection and cure, we need to counsel entire families. I have seen men leave their wives when they lose their hair, their breasts. How is that okay?”
Farah Haq, who Instagrams as @farahkaysaath and is also co-editor of online portal Fuchsia Magazine, gives her own insight. “I witnessed my mother-in-law struggle with breast cancer. My husband and I were with her during the last two years of her life, and I know how it can debilitate a person spiritually and physically. My brother-in-law is also currently fighting cancer. This disease is perpetually looming upon all of us and, yet, I know of women who opt to live in oblivion, rather than make conscientious efforts for early detection.
“This shoot also gave me the chance to meet Zahra, and we were all crying by the time she had told us her story.”
Digital creator Anushae Tariq, who Instagrams as @anushaesays, similarly felt inspired by Zahra.
“I had never met a breast cancer survivor before,” she confesses, “and listening to Zahra, I registered the gravity of the physical and mental changes that take place because of this disease. I agreed to be part of the shoot because it was for a good cause, although I knew very little about the disease. Afterwards, I left feeling a sense of solidarity for women fighting the disease and knowing the importance of getting checked regularly.”
Beyond pink, beyond glamour, beyond aesthetically pleasing shoots, it is the stories of women who have suffered from breast cancer or seen its effects on their near and dear ones that need to be highlighted.
Packaged in shiny pink wrapping, with campaigns scattered all across the print and electronic media, the month of October, aka Pinktober, addresses the reality of breast cancer in myriad ways. And gradually, hopefully, these consistent campaigns may shake some sense into Pakistani society and eradicate the prevalent staid notions that can’t hear the word ‘breast’, without associating it with shame.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 22nd, 2023