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How Our Society’s Screwed-Up Relationship With Breasts Costs Lives

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By Anjana Radhakrishnan:

Our society has no problem sexualising the female body to sell products, whether that’s an advertisement for an online sale of watches and handbags, or a commercial for men’s deodorant. Too bad, our willingness to make a profit off of female body parts doesn’t extend to protecting them. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among Indian women and it’s the most frequently occurring cancer in India, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE).

breast cancer pinkathon
Pinkathon – a marathon promoting breast cancer awareness. Source: Arvind Yadav/Getty

Yet, India has one of the worst survival rates for women with breast cancer. The key problem is the lack of early detection as late stage cancer treatments are often difficult in less-developed settings, shares Dr Lalit Dandona, professor at IMHE and co-author of the study,

Not only that. Breast cancer rates have been rising among younger women. Two young women, Neeti Leekha Chhabra and Shruti Sharma, both survivors were just 31 years old when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Shruti shares, “The news was a complete shock for us and all our future planning went down the drains. Our immediate concern was my survival.”

Senior consultant and surgical oncologist, Dr KS Gopinath, notes that the ‘normal age’ for contracting breast cancer has dropped from 45-55 to 35-45 years with women as young as 18 being diagnosed.

Cultural Taboos

Battling breast cancer is tough – not only do women have to struggle with the possibility of losing one or both their breasts, it takes an immense physical, mental and emotional toll on women and their loved ones. It may be necessary to undergo a lumpectomy (removal of tumor), mastectomy (removal of breasts) or chemotherapy which could last anywhere from six to ten months, and breast reconstruction.

Most insurance companies consider breast reconstruction ‘plastic surgery‘ and will not cover related costs for this expensive procedure. As Shruti puts it, “They don’t realise that this is not a process of beautification like a breast augmentation or reduction; this is restoration of a woman’s body part and is as important as any other amputated part.”

Listen, cancer is super scary and it’s a topic no one likes to talk about – and when we’re talking about breasts, that scariness often gets exacerbated by cultural taboos that make women embarrassed and hesitant to talk about these problems with doctors and health practitioners. As women, we’re simultaneously sexualised and taught to be ashamed of our bodies. That kind of shame wreaks havoc on our mental and emotional health and it sucks that it affects our physical health, too.

Mammo-Awareness

breast cancer awareness
Source: Susan G Komen Foundation

Luckily, there are a lot of organisations and initiatives in India that are stepping up to address these problems. The Indian Cancer Society (ICS) formed ‘Uday’, a support group where young breast cancer patients and survivors could hear, share, and help one another with the emotional burden of battling breast cancer. The Women’s Cancer Initiative based out of Tata Memorial Hospital has also been fundraising for research and development of breast cancer prevention and treatment, creating a support community for breast cancer survivors and families, as well as providing financial support for treatments since 2003. The people behind the Mammo Mobile have been traveling through rural areas of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka since 2012, providing free mammograms in a safe and comfortable environment and creating awareness in populations that are often left unreached.

While there is still no sure way to prevent breast cancer, you can reduce the risk of cancer spreading to areas outside the breast by detecting it as early as possible. When breast cancer is detected in its early stages, treatments are much more likely to work and could save thousands of lives. Though the efficacy of monthly breast self-examinations remains ambiguous, doctors and breast-cancer advocates still push for increasing general awareness of your breasts, knowing how they look and feel and knowing the warning signs for breast cancer.

Having that awareness helps bring women into hospitals at earlier stages for mammograms and screenings to diagnose cancer, giving doctors and patients more options. And in general, it’s just good to be aware of your body. Despite our technology and our protein shakes, we are all still just fragile shells bumping around this world. While it is scary and breasts remain charged sites of sexuality and shame for most people in our society, it is your body and your health. Don’t let a cultural taboo take that from you.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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