Asian cancer survivors break stigma in their communities

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, cancer patients from Asian communities are fighting back against cultural stigmas to raise awareness & save lives

Breast cancer affects 2.2mn people a year across the world - including men, where the cancer grows inside breast tissue. In the USA, breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, totaling 30% of all new cancers in women, each year. The Asian community has a high rate of cancer and survivors are working hard to change that. 


Breast cancer stigma prevents women from seeking medical help

Research from Breast Cancer Now shows that there is a smaller uptake of breast cancer screenings from Asian women, who are then diagnosed at a later stage when the survival rate is much lower.

According to  BMJ, women from Asian backgrounds are less likely to attend a cancer screening for several reasons:

  • Poorer individual knowledge and awareness of breast cancer
  • Lower community awareness
  • Poor communication between health professionals and patients
  • Language barriers 
  • Stigma around cancer

Beliefs surrounding cancer can prevent women from seeking medical help and for those who do, this is kept secret. When Yvonne Liu found a lump in her breast, she went to the doctor who confirmed cancer. Liu sought treatment, but kept the diagnosis private for 28 years, as she was afraid that her friends would abandon her if they knew. 

“Asian Americans have the lowest rate of cancer screening among all ethnic/racial groups in the country,” Liu said. “It’s a complicated problem, with complicated cultural roots, like the shame and fear that stems from thousand-year-old East Asian traditional beliefs. Some believe that illness results from karma or bad choices.”

For other women, unwelcome questions about their future can cause more pain and prevent them from sharing their illness with others. 

"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,” Sonia Bhandal told BBC Asian Network. "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."

Kreena Dhiman is the Co-founder of The South Asian Supernovas, where she challenges conversations around breast cancer and cultural conditioning. She has previously worked at L&G, SGN and BT. 

“We don’t really have vulnerable conversations around cancer,” said Dhiman. “When we’re from the South Asian community, we feel like we have to be strong and tough, not show any weakness and I think now I realised that there was no weakness in any of that time.” 

Dhiman hopes to change this and encourage more women to seek medical help when they find a lump, while the global healthcare sector is united in its work against cancer.

Using AI in cancer treatment

While women fight against cultural taboos, AI is being used to fight cancer itself. Researchers from Lund University in Sweden have found that AI can identify cancer, at a rate close to two radiologists. In a test, half of the scans were assessed by two breast cancer radiologists and the other half were assessed by an AI-supported screening tool, then reviewed by radiologists.

"The greatest potential of AI right now is that it could allow radiologists to be less burdened by the excessive amount of reading,” said Dr Kristina Lang, the study’s lead author. 

Meanwhile, Novartis Kisqali combined with ET therapy has been found to lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence and help patients maintain a good quality of life.

Everyday, developments in breast cancer treatments are made, but they will be for nothing if women do not attend appointments. 

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s time to have those vulnerable conversations. 

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