Asian Women Shy of Breast Scans

Breast scans are vital to help spot early symptoms of possible breast cancer. Research in the UK has found that women of South Asian backgrounds are shy and reluctant to attend scans due to cultural and stigma issues. Awareness must be increased to change these attitudes.

"The issue is more than a language issue"

Breast cancer is now not only the most widely seen cancer in the UK, it is also the most common fatal cancer for women living in metropolitan areas in India. There is no cure for the disease as yet, however detecting it at an early stage means treatment is more likely to be successful.

Traditionally seen as a “Western” disease, there has been a significant rise in the number of Asian women affected in recent years. Professionals are concerned that Asian women are “too shy” to have breast scans, leading to the cancer being found late and reducing the chance of successful treatment.

1.38 million women across the globe were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. According to Cancer Research 45,700 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK in 2007, which works out to be a staggering 125 women each day.

And the number is expected to rise. According to the World Cancer Report cancer rates could potentially rise by 50 per cent by 2020. Developing countries are predicted to account for more than half of all cancer cases worldwide by 2020, the report went on to say. Although it is thought by some to be a Western disease there is evidence that it is becoming increasingly more common in Asia. The World Health Organisation issued a warning that Asia’s annual cancer mortality rate could reach 6.4 million by 2030.

Although an absolute cure for the disease is yet to be found, the chances of surviving breast cancer are much higher if it is detected early. If a woman is diagnosed with stage one breast cancer then she has a 90 per cent chance of surviving. However if the disease is diagnosed at an advanced stage then the probability of survival drops dramatically. Women diagnosed with breast cancer at stage four only have a 10 per cent survival rate.

These sobering figures emphasise the need for regular check-ups in order to catch the disease early. Cancer Research states on its site that the NHS breast-screening programme saves over 1,000 lives each year.

However a recent study carried out in Oldham indicated that British Asian women were half as likely to have the NHS check-ups in comparison to the rest of the UK population. In certain areas the results were even more astonishing. Only 35 per cent of Asian women in poorer areas were likely to have the scan, whereas the figure was 70 per cent among non-Asian women.

The statistics are worrying, and health experts have a number of theories as to why Asian women are not attending potentially life-saving check-ups. Lester Barr, a breast cancer specialist, said: “The issue is more than a language issue. There is less breast awareness within the Asian community.”

“There are cultural problems that make them shy to come forward and discuss it with family and friends.”

Moves are being made to increase awareness and encourage Asian women to attend check-ups. The first Asian Women’s Health Awareness Conference was held at Wythenshawe Hospital at the beginning of this month. Among the speakers there was Nighat Awan, chief executive of the Shere Khan restaurant group. Awan’s mother had breast cancer and died when she was 51. Now aged 55, Nighat Awan said before the conference, “Asian people are very closed-door. They think let’s not talk about it and it might go away. We have to tell people to deal with it.”

Getting the subject out in the open and encouraging people to talk about it will definitely help the situation. However, more needs to be done on a nationwide scale in order to tackle the problem effectively. The conference is a good start, but there needs to be many more initiatives in order to make a significant difference to the report’s predictions.

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Roz is a writer who has travelled extensively in South-East Asia and Europe. Her passions are learning about different cultures, learning foreign languages and meeting new and interesting people. Her motto is "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."