On June 4-5 of this year, I will walk in my seventh Avon Walk for Breast Cancer with my mom. We’ve done these walks together every year since I was 19 and, while it is a wonderful way to connect and spend time with my mom, it’s always a humbling experience. Hearing women speak about their experiences with breast cancer makes me want to continue walking every year so, maybe, someday my daughter may not have to worry about this terrible disease.
Breast cancer is such a part of our daily rhetoric – from pink ribbon products to pink-washed sporting events throughout October – that it’s hard to imagine a world without that kind of awareness. And even though there are many disputes about whether or not these campaigns are effective, sexist, objectifying, or just a marketing ploy, the fact is that an awareness of breast cancer and the importance of routine breast exams, mammograms, early detection, and comprehensive treatment exists in the United States. This is, unfortunately, not so in many other countries including Saudi Arabia. According to a recent Ms. Magazine blog post:
Because Saudi women don’t get screened for breast cancer early or often, a majority of those with the disease—as many as 70 percent–are diagnosed at an advanced stage by the time they finally visit a doctor, leading to a lower survival rate compared to countries where the disease is caught earlier. In addition, 30 percent of breast cancer cases in Saudi Arabia occur in women under the age of 40, compared with five percent in the U.S. … In Saudi Arabia, however, getting a mammogram is seen as taboo.
The fact is that, in a country where women wear burqas in public, there is a lot of shame that surrounds the female body. This can become problematic when it comes to breast cancer screening, as many medical technicians and doctors in the country are men. For a woman to bare her breasts in front of a man in Saudi Arabia is something that is still seen as taboo.
Fortunately, there is reason to be optimistic. In October 2007, for example, Laura Bush went to Saudi Arabia to launch a screening facility in the country. Thanks to efforts such as these, awareness is increasing; breast cancer incidence rates are decreasing at a rate of about 2 percent per year.
Personally, I’ve never thought myself fortunate to be able to participate in events such as the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer or other various pink-ribbon marketing campaigns. I’ve always thought of these things as things I’d rather live without because I’d rather live in a world without breast cancer. But, the situation in Saudi Arabia makes it clear that if it weren’t for these awareness and fundraising campaigns, many more women may be diagnosed and even die from breast cancer in the world. Regardless of the sexist, objectifying, money-making ploy that some of these campaigns may be, it’s good to know that awareness is being created, and the same tactics can work for a real, positive change in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the color pink is really working to remove the stigma of breast cancer so more women can get the treatment they need.