Breast cancer: Asian survivors dealing with taboos in the community


  • By Raj Kaur Bilkhu
  • BBC Asian Network

image Source, Bhandal family

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When Sonia was 27, she was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer

“Although I saw my mother fighting from a young age, I never checked my breasts. We didn’t even talk about it.”

When Sonia Bhandal was 14, her mother died of breast cancer, six years after her diagnosis. Then, when she was 27, Sonia learned that she too had the same cancer.

Discussing cancer in the Asian community can be a tricky issue — and there’s an added stigma when it comes to breast cancer.

Sonia feels that Asian women face additional pressure when they have a chronic illness because their marriage or fertility is often questioned.

She tells BBC Asian Network, “I was dating during my treatment and I remember being very sick, coming out of hospital and an aunty saying ‘Will his parents accept you?’ “

“I was already trying to survive day to day and to have people close to you asking questions about my future, my marriage and fertility is heartbreaking.

“And that’s why people don’t want to talk about it, because they don’t want their aunt or anyone else to have that kind of opinion.”

‘Fear about cancer’

Research from Breast Cancer Now shows that South Asians have lower rates of breast screening, meaning they are often diagnosed at a later stage and have lower survival rates than white women.

This suggested that cultural and language barriers may play a role.

“There are barriers to talking about breasts in the community and breast checking is often seen as a sexual thing,” says Manveet Basra, the charity’s associate director of public health.

“There is a general feeling of fear and fatalism around cancer.

“So there are some cultural or religious beliefs that a cancer diagnosis is caused by sin and karma from a past life.”

image Source, Bhandal family

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Sonia was 14 when her mother died of breast cancer

Sonia says her “breasts were having a lot of pain” before she learned she had inherited a mutated gene called BRCA that put her at increased risk of breast cancer.

Both his mother and aunt had already died from the disease.

“I rolled over in bed and my arm scratched my breast and it felt like it was a stone,” she says.

“I burst into tears, my conscience realizing what it was.”

Having that particular gene also means that the cancer has a higher than average chance of returning, and will also put Sonia at increased risk of cervical cancer.

So she opted to have a double mastectomy – in which both breasts were removed – because she “didn’t want to risk going through chemo again”.

image Source, Sania Ahmed

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Sania uses her role as a doctor in the community to encourage better health care

Sania Ahmed is a doctor who is trying to use her platform to raise awareness about how breast cancer is perceived in the South Asian community.

“I was 24 when I got this disease, and it felt like I’d been given a life sentence,” she says.

“Women in our culture don’t prioritize their health. And because the breast is seen as a private area, breast exams [often] Doesn’t exist.

“I grew up in a loving Muslim family but women are still seen as having the role of wife and having children.”

Sania says she tries to use her role in the community to encourage better health care.

“As a doctor, I always encourage my patients to check their breasts,” she says.

“If something seems strange, just look into it.”

image Source, Deepika Saggi

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Deepika completed her cancer treatment a year ago

For Deepika Saggi, breast cancer was not something she had ever struggled with in her family.

She suffered “shooting pains” during the Covid pandemic and her doctor immediately referred her for a biopsy.

Deepika, who was 35 at the time, was then told that she was already “quite far along”, with the tumor measuring 8 cm.

“It was an intense emotional rollercoaster of confusion, pain and acceptance,” she says.

“You don’t think you can get cancer that young. Maybe that’s why I got a lot of help later.”

Deepika says that certain comments from people around her have also made things difficult, including references to karma or “God’s will”.

“I’ve often heard from adults ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘God only challenges His strongest’ and I’ve wondered ‘So do you think God thinks I deserve cancer? ‘” she says.

Manveet feels that young members of the community like Sonia, Deepika and Sania can help change the mindset.

“Being aware of breast cancer and knowing the signs and symptoms can potentially help you and others in your family,” she says.

If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, help and support is available bbc action line You can find more information about breast cancer screening Here.

Listen to Ankur Desai’s show on BBC Asian Network stay 15:00-18:00 Monday to Thursday – or listen back Here.

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