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

Posted on June 30, 2016 in Health and Life

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.


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.