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The Invisible Killer: How Cancer is Eating up Indian Women

Representative image

Representative image

One woman dies of cervical cancer every eight minutes in India.

After actress Sonali Bendre was diagnosed with cancer recently, the entire nation came forward to mourn with her and giver her support and love.

However, despite enjoying a certain limelight in the media due to the celebrity association, the problem of women’s cancer in India is a potent yet largely invisible one.

Figures released this year by the Noida-based National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research, shed some light on the problem of growing cancer in women, which threatens to turn into an epidemic if not tackled on an urgent footing.

One woman dies of cervical cancer every eight minutes in India. The average age of breast cancer in India is almost a decade lower than in the West. One of every 2 woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer doesn’t survive in this country.

In 2017, a report released by E&Y in association with industry body FICCI titled ‘Call for Action: Expanding Cancer Care for Women in India, 2017’, showed that cervical and breast cancer rates in India were among the highest in the world. India also recorded the second highest cases of ovarian cancer globally.

The report said that of the 2,000 women detected with cancer, 1,200 were diagnosed at a late stage. This means it reduces the first-year survival rate by 3 to 17 times for breast and cervical cancer.

Mridu Gupta, Chief Operations Officer at Cancer Awareness, Prevention and Early Detection (CAPED), an NGO working for cancer awareness says that although campaigns for raising awareness for breast cancer do exist (on lines of similar campaigns in the west), cervical and ovarian cancer remain shrouded in stigma.

“Despite cervical cancer being highest in India, very little is done about. It is not talked about and women know very little about it. Awareness is the key here. Preventive measures need to be introduced. Women need to be enlightened that they ought to get themselves scanned more frequently. Regular check-ups can go a long way in mitigating the disease. There should be a sustained and long-term awareness campaign that informs the women of the risk factors," she said.

“Women downplay their health and do not make it a priority. Some associate cancer with even bad karma,” Gupta added.

However, the actual number of cases may be much higher due to under-reporting and lack of detection. Says Atul Kumar Srivastava of the department of oncology at Delhi’s Dharamshila Cancer Hospital, “Women are also apprehensive about getting themselves screened if they notice a lump. Sometimes it may not be painful so they prefer to ignore it.”

India is third on the list of countries with the highest number of malignancies, only behind the U.S. and China. An estimated 0.7 million women are living with the disease, the EY-FICCI report points out.

According to Dr Srivastava, unhealthy lifestyles and increased stress levels are also factors that lead to breast and cervical cancer.

“Previously, a majority of patients belonged to the 50-60 age bracket. Now, women as young as 26 or 27 are contracting the disease. We are seeing on an average two new cases every day,” he points out.

This is in contrast to the West where cervical cancer has almost been totally eliminated due to regular pap-smear tests.

Vice Chairperson of the Indian Cancer Society, Jyotsna Govil, also attributed the drastic rise in cancer cases for women to poor living conditions, bad eating habits and increased use of tobacco. In addition, she says that “people do not want to invest in proper tests and do not get themselves scanned at the right time.”

However, the baseline cost of cancer treatment exceeding the annual household income of over 80-85 per cent households in India is another contributing factor for the rising incidence of the disease.

Moreover, cancer is seen largely as an urban phenomenon. Nearly 40-60 per cent of all treatment and oncologists are found in the top seven to eight metropolitan cities in India, reflecting the lack of equal treatment in rural regions. There is on an average one oncologist for every 1600 new cancer patients in India, as compared to one for every 100-400 new cancer patients in the U.S. and U.K. respectively.

Clearly, those at the frontier of battling this scourge in India have their hands full. But more awareness has to be generated in addition to developing better diagnostic and screening facilities that ensure spreading awareness and providing timely treatment and management of the disease.