October brings an increase in Halloween decorations along with pink breast cancer memorabilia. Though seemingly unrelated, both Halloween and breast cancer evoke fear of the unknown and anxiety. Fear and anxiety surrounding breast cancer diagnoses are especially pronounced in South Asian communities, where taboos related to cancer pervade.
Research from Breast Cancer Now suggests that South Asian women tend to receive breast cancer diagnoses during the later stages of the disease and thus have lower survival rates than white women. South Asian women are less likely to seek out preventative breast cancer screenings that could detect the disease at a more curable stage, making their mortality rates higher.
Cultural and language barriers make preventative measures like breast cancer screenings less accessible to South Asian women. The obstacles arise through cultural stigmas associated with breast cancer and a lack of knowledge about the disease since educational materials on breast cancer are rarely distributed in South Asian languages.
In South Asian society, breasts are generally sexualized; therefore, breasts and breast cancer are considered private topics. Censoring discussion around this disease increases its stigma. Questions like, “What will society say if I have breast cancer?” prevent women from seeking the help they need. In addition, societal pushback also discourages women from taking preventative actions to treat the disease before it enters late stages.
The stigma surrounding breast cancer arises from the misconception that it is contagious or that the patient deserves it due to past transgressions. This mindset isolates the cancer patient and divides her from her support system. Ranak Trivedi at Stanford University conducted a study called South Asian Family Approaches to Disease that aimed to analyze the experiences of South Asian women living in America who have experienced breast cancer diagnoses. Trivedi noted that most breast cancer patients in the study felt immensely burdened by the disease due to the absence of a robust support system within their lives. American patients must take on regular responsibilities such as housework and caretaking while also dealing with their diagnosis. Conversely, a breast cancer patient in India might have a sizable collectivist community to rely on.
In addition, cultural and language barriers make treatment more difficult for older South Asian women who immigrated to the United States as adults. Some doctor recommended remedies, such as eating leaner meat, may not apply to vegetarian South Asians. Additionally, Doctors usually explain treatments in English; therefore, doctor’s visits become a confusing experience for patients who don’t comprehend the options available. This lack of clarity exacerbates patients’ sense of isolation, leading them to believe no one is there for them.
Trivedi’s research also demonstrates the need to raise awareness about breast cancer so that when women seek help, it’s not too late. In addition, her research suggests the need for more specific and accurate healthcare resources targeted toward diverse ethnic groups. Breast cancer is an equalizing disease that affects all people regardless of their background. Therefore, doctors need to specify their treatment to accommodate their patients.
As breast cancer awareness month comes to a close, we, as South Asian women, should be aware of our implicit biases and work to ensure that our peers don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. Our community must be open about conversations surrounding women’s health and debunk the stigmas associated with the diseases that affect us. Establishing an open conversation on breast cancer and similar diseases can facilitate the distribution of life saving care within our community.