Breast cancer is now the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world, making up 11.7% of all new cancer diagnoses. In India too, it is rapidly rising. Today, one in 22 urban women and one in 60 rural women is at risk of the disease. In the West, dogged activism by women’s groups has destigmatised breast cancer. It has been branded with a pink ribbon; philanthropic campaigns, advertising and marathons have raised awareness; vast sums of money have been mobilised against it. But research suggests that Indian women are likely to get the disease earlier and at more advanced stages.
Delays in detection and treatment are the main reasons it becomes a more complex and life-threatening situation here. Cancer is an especially dreaded diagnosis for the poor. The gender disparity in access to healthcare is also well-documented. Women under-use health services because of lack of affordability, lack of transport, having less money and less time than men, and also most fundamentally, because the world is not set up to attend to their well-being.
Families and institutions, even women themselves, underplay their physical suffering. Diseases that specifically affect women are under-researched, and women are less commonly screened for common conditions like heart disease, or even mental illness. Women are also under-studied in clinical trials, which assume the male body as the standard, hampering the efficacy of drugs for women. We need to undo this skew urgently, so that all women have a fighting chance of a full life.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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