For A Disease Afflicting Women, One Man Raises The Pink Flag

Pink Ribbon has opened doors to Pakistan's first hospital dedicated to detecting and treating breast cancer 

For A Disease Afflicting Women, One Man Raises The Pink Flag

In Pakistan, where the very public mention of women's 'breasts' is suppressed owing to conservative societal norms, it has a profound impact on women when it comes to discussing and then acting on their health. Unable to openly discuss whether that lump in the chest is benign or does it foretell a looming health risk. The stifling modesty expected of Pakistanis often silences conversations, even between women, around abnormalities in women's bodies, which could have a health impact. However, little by little, some change has come, especially with dedicated treatment in reach.

Every year, October is celebrated as breast cancer awareness month. Even the government joins in to create awareness about early detection and treatment. First Lady Samina Alvi is a vocal advocate on the matter. This year, she reiterated the idea that all women must learn to do simple self-checkups for potential signs of breast cancer to lower the death rate. 

But beyond the standard brouhaha with some billboards, advertisements, seminars, talks, or mobile check-up drives, this year saw the inauguration of Pakistan's first hospital dedicated to breast cancer in Lahore.

A vision born from a friend's tragedy

One would expect that even in a country like Pakistan, a maverick woman would step up to fight against breast cancer. This is why it is surprising to find a man working for this cause.

Omer Aftab, who formed the Pink Ribbon Pakistan campaign in 2004, has been striving to take practical steps to help combat the disease that claims some 40,000 lives yearly.

His attention to the cause, however, was drawn through grief. The loss of a close friend due to the disease sparked something in him to focus his energies towards this issue and form Pink Ribbon and vowed that he would not let his friend's suffering go in vain.

"I was determined to speak out," Aftab told The Friday Times

"Just as I needed to hear from someone who had overcome the loss of a loved one to breast cancer, I wanted to be that person who reached out to women with the disease and assured them they could fight it."

In creating Pink Ribbon Pakistan, Aftab said that he had committed to raising awareness about breast cancer, promoting early detection, and, above all, saving lives. 

"The Pink Ribbon campaign is a testament to the transformative power of strategic interventions, even in challenging conditions," he asserted.

With more people than ever now being diagnosed with breast cancer, Aftab said that it was important to act to prevent the country from sliding backwards in the race to defeat the disease and see more lives lost.

"We need to push forward and make progress to lower the number of cases, improve the quality of treatment, and an improved quality of life for everyone affected by breast cancer."

Over its nearly 20-year journey, Aftab's Pink Ribbon Pakistan claims to have provided free diagnostic screenings to 4,700 deserving women and has empowered some 19.8 million women with life-saving, early detection techniques.

This has helped register an increase of 400% in women taking mammogram tests.

It has now built a dedicated hospital in Lahore for Rs730 million.

"We are setting up Pakistan's first dedicated Breast Cancer Hospital where deserving patients will receive free diagnosis and treatment under one roof," he said.

He outlined a vision where all breast cancer victims will be treated with world-class healthcare technology. 

"In our journey towards a cancer-free Pakistan, we are committed to building more breast cancer hospitals in the future."

But Aftab said that their efforts cannot exist in isolation.

"Our mission is to improve support for the physical and mental health and the emotional well-being of people affected by breast cancer so that no one has to face breast cancer alone and unsupported," Aftab explained his mission, adding that despite the achievements thus far, they need to continue to increase their impact not just through what they do, but in how they can influence, empower, and inspire others to act as well.