Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women?

Breast cancer is a devastating illness that affects many people. We explore whether it is still tabooed for Asian women.

Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women_ - F

"Women in our culture don't prioritise their health"

Breast cancer is an illness that changes lives and can have profound impacts on those who contract it.

The disease can affect people of both sexes. However, it is the most common cancer in women in the UK.

Symptoms of the disease can include a lump or swelling in the breast, chest, or armpit.

Women are also advised to seek medical attention if their nipples feel abnormal.

Breast cancer can occur at various ages. However, some Asian communities consider it a taboo for Asian women.

Some breast cancer survivors have bravely fought against this taboo and are continuing to create awareness in inspiring ways.

Delving into the Asian taboo of breast cancer, DESIblitz pays tribute to some amazing survivors who defied their surrounding norms.

The Taboo

The Negative Effects of a Birth Control Pill - breastsAccording to some Asian ideologies and beliefs, women and girls of such communities are kept sheltered.

It is therefore considered a taboo to openly discuss issues relating to the female body including the breasts, vagina and menstruation.

The charity, Breast Cancer Now has conducted research that shows that South Asians undertake a low amount of breast screenings.

As a result, their cancer can be detected at a later stage, which makes it more advanced and therefore less likely to be treated efficiently.

Manveet Basra, the charity’s Associate Director of Public Health, sheds light on the fear illustrating the taboo:

“There are barriers around talking about breasts in the community and checking breasts is often seen as a sexual thing.

“There’s fear around cancer generally and a feeling of fatalism.

“So some cultural or religious beliefs that a cancer diagnosis is off the back of a sin from a past life and karma.

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

Survivors of Breast Cancer

Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women_ - Survivors of Breast CancerSonia Bhandal

Three survivors of breast cancer detail their stories of the disease and the stigma they faced to the BBC.

Sonia Bhandal’s mother passed away due to the illness when Sonia was 14.

The latter was diagnosed with the condition aged 27.

Sonia discusses the judgment she faced at the time of her treatment:

“I was dating during my treatment and remember being super-ill, fresh out of hospital and an aunt saying, ‘Will his parents accept you?’

“I was already just trying to survive day by day and to have questions about my future, my marriage and fertility from people close to you, it’s heartbreaking.

“And that’s why people don’t want to talk about it, because they don’t want their aunt or anyone else to give these opinions.”

Sonia explains how she found out that she had breast cancer. She already knew that she had inherited an altered gene called BRCA.

Anyone with the BRCA gene is at a higher risk of developing the disease. Sonia adds:

“I rolled over in bed and my arm scraped my breast and it felt like a stone.

“I just burst into tears, my gut just knew what it was.”

She ultimately chose to have both her breasts removed – a double mastectomy.

Sania Ahmed

Sania Ahmed practices medicine and she admirably uses her profession to break the taboo existing within Asian communities surrounding breast cancer. She explains:

“I was 24 years old when I was diagnosed and it felt like I was labelled with a life sentence.

“Women in our culture don’t prioritise their health.

“And because the breast is seen as a private area, breast examination [often] doesn’t exist.

“I’ve grown up in a loving Muslim family but women are still seen as fulfilling the role of a wife and having kids.

“As a doctor, I’m always encouraging my patients to check their breasts.

“If something feels odd then just get it looked at.”

Dipika Saggi

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Dipika’s life was changed forever when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. She expresses:

“It was a rapid emotional rollercoaster of confusion, pain and acceptance.

“You don’t think you can get cancer when you’re young.

“Maybe that’s why I got help a lot later.”

Divulging into the unhelpful comments she received, Dipika continues:

“I often heard from elders, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘God only challenges his strongest’.

“I would think, ‘So you think God thinks I deserve to have cancer?'”

Iyna’s Story

Iyna is a dedicated supporter of the aforementioned charity Breast Cancer Now.

The charity seeks to undertake research to provide life-saving initiatives relating to the condition.

Breast Cancer Now has invested over £268 million into this research.

The official website describes Iyna as “a confident, driven, Muslim, British South Asian woman”.

Diagnosed with the illness at age 30, Iyna says:

“Born in the UK and brought up by Pakistani parents, myself and my siblings have constantly tried to balance my family heritage with British culture.

“I was taught to be independent but to never forget my cultural and Muslim values.

“I’m grateful that cancer came at 30 and not later in life.

“I’ve now got many years to give back and make an impact.

“I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 30 in January 2015.”

“With a 4-year old-son, and no family history or knowledge of cancer, the diagnosis came as a shock.

“I went through chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, finishing my treatment in October 2015.

“Then, five years later at the age of 35, I had to have a? hysterectomy due to high-risk ovarian cancer.

“It has been a long and lonely journey, which only becomes harder when you are from the South Asian community.

“The lack of culturally tailored support groups and not seeing someone like me on posters and TV made me realise that my diagnosis could change the face of cancer for South Asian women.

“I decided to use my voice and cancer journey to educate and raise the importance of diversity within the cancer campaign world, raise the issues of health inequalities and shake up the system.

“We’re not a community who speaks about cancer due to cultural stigma, taboo and lack of representation.

“So, I’m hoping that my face and story can raise awareness and change the system.”


s Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women_ - StatisticsThe statistics of breast cancer correlating to South Asian women are shocking.

According to The Guardian, the number of Asian women who contract this illness has “more than doubled since 1998, from 60 to 130 women per 100,000 Asian women every year.”

Lester Barr, Consultant Surgeon and Chairman of the cancer-prevention charity Genesis underlines the alarming lack of breast screenings among South Asian women:

“The low uptake in screenings may be because of an assumption that this is a white woman’s disease.

“It may also have to do with cultural attitudes, for instance not wanting to see a doctor about any intimate health problems.

“Traditionally, when an Asian woman gets breast cancer, she tells no one.

“We need to change that.”

Research by Cancer Research UK

Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women_ - Research by Cancer Research UKIn 2004, Cancer Research UK conducted a study that showed that Muslim Indian and Muslim Pakistani women are more likely to develop breast cancer than Gujarati Hindu women.

Diet and body size were suggested as factors for this difference.

The researchers interviewed over 700 South Asian women of different backgrounds from the West Midlands and London.

Lead author Valerie McCormack states:

“We already know that women who have children at younger ages, who have more children and who breastfeed their children are at a lower risk of breast cancer.

“We did find differences in reproductive factors between the five groups but they did not explain the different rates of breast cancer.

“Pakistani and Indian Muslim women, on average, had their first child at younger ages and had more children than Gujarati Hindu women, but despite this, their breast cancer risk was higher.

“We did find some clues when we examined the women’s diet and body size.

“Compared to Pakistani and Indian Muslim women, the Gujarati Hindu women in this study were more likely to be vegetarian and therefore have more fibre in their diet from a higher intake of fruit and vegetables.

“On average they also had smaller waistlines which is probably the result of more physical activity.

“Together these may explain the lower rate of breast cancer in this group.”

Professor Robert Souhami, Director of Clinical and External Affairs for Cancer Research UK, says:

“In light of this new research, and with the recent rise in breast cancer in this group, characterising all South Asian women as ‘low risk’ would seem to be misleading and potentially dangerous.

“Breast cancer is a common disease and we encourage all women to be aware of the risk and attend for screening when they are invited.”

Bharti Patel’s Story

Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women?

At the age of 47, Bharti Patel came across a lump in her breast. She reflects:

“Breast cancer changes you. It affects what you wear, what you look like, who you are.

“I’ve come on in leaps and bounds since the cancer.

“I’ve forgiven people and done so much. I have changed my life.”

“One of the biggest taboos of Asian culture is that if you are ill, you just don’t talk about it.

“You don’t talk about your breast cancer to the outside world. You don’t even say the word ‘breast’.

“It’s just too private.”

While having treatment, Cancer Black Care, a support group for BAME cancer patients, caught Bharti’s eye.

Soon afterwards, Bharti forged a friendship with Pushpa Martin, an Indian woman.

Bharti continues:

“We spoke for hours on the phone, before we’d even met.”

Pushpa and Bharti met up with Amarjit Panesar and the three friends founded Kent’s ‘Asian Women’s Breast Cancer Group’.

The group boasts of over 50 members and they have monthly meetings at a local Hindu temple.

Bharti and Amarjit stepped down from chairing the group when Pushpa sadly passed away of her cancer in 2008.

Coincidentally, their successor is also named Bharti Patel.

She explains: “To have a young Asian man here to talk about breast cancer so openly is a huge deal.”

Members of Asian Women’s Breast Cancer Group

Is Breast Cancer still a Taboo for Asian Women_ - Members of Asian Women's Breast Cancer GroupThe Guardian also mentions other valued members of the support group.

Chanchalben Chauhan admits she kept her cancer a secret from her friends. She says:

“They would have worried me. I didn’t want that and I didn’t feel like I had cancer.

“I mean, I know I have to go one day. But I just didn’t want them all to know.”

Deviben Patel’s experience is similar. She adds:

“I wore my wig and kept it a secret for a year.

“[At the support group], I can talk about it all.”

Ranju Morjaria says:

“My niece had breast cancer before me. So when I was diagnosed, I took a lot of strength from her.

“She told me you have to be open and be honest about it. Tell everyone, don’t hide it.

“And that really helped me to get through.”

The Asian Women’s Breast Cancer Group deserves huge acclaim for providing a sanctuary for breast cancer patients and survivors.

This is a place where they can escape the taboo and share their experiences and feelings, thereby easing their pain.

Many initiatives advocate for progression in tackling breast cancer.

The perception is slowly changing but all these survivors faced similar treatments and taboos.

However, with the existence of support groups and vital research, the hope is that attitudes of stigma will decrease.

We need to remember that breast cancer does not discriminate, even if human beings do.

Manav is a creative writing graduate and a die-hard optimist. His passions include reading, writing and helping others. His motto is: “Never hang on to your sorrows. Always be positive."

Image courtesy of YouTube, The Quint, Sonia Bhandal, Breast Cancer Now, DESIblitz, Something to Look Forward and Brown History – Substack.

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