Cancer is often seen as a disease of the aging, and as populations in low- and middle-income countries are living longer, we are seeing instances of the disease rise significantly. Huge inroads have been made in the fight against infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS, but it’s time for policymakers, practitioners and, most importantly, health ministries in these countries to shift their attention to cancer, which will soon become a top killer worldwide. At Komen, we strongly advocate for the inclusion of women’s cancers – and particularly breast cancer – into national health strategies to address this coming cancer “tsunami.”
Ministries of health in the developing world are increasingly aware of the challenges their populations face in getting access to effective care for cancer. Many are more than willing to develop the plans and policies required to deal with the disease, but they also face major obstacles when it comes to the resources and infrastructure needed to take action.
While Komen is helping in some countries, no one organization can solve the issue on its own. We believe that a coalition approach is most effective – when international health organizations come together to work closely with local communities, medical providers and governments to help drive plans forward.
Through these coalitions, we have had the opportunity to leverage progress made in the treatment of communicable diseases, like HIV/AIDS, to reach women with information and cancer-related health services. A strong example of this concept is the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon (PRRR) partnership, of which Komen is a founding member. Through PRRR, the infrastructure of PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is being leveraged to help integrate breast and cervical cancer care through existing relationships and programs.
Another important shift we must see is the incorporation of reproductive health care providers into the fight against cancer. When considering women’s health, both policymakers and practitioners need to understand that maternal health doesn’t stop once a woman has had a child. It is important to provide a continuum of care that can address the health needs of a population throughout its lifetime.
And even once we have overcome these hurdles, there are still more. It’s not enough for health organizations to help a government develop protocols and guidelines around things like early detection and treatment of cancer. Continued partnership is needed to create implementation plans to address each country’s needs.
There will never be one approach that works in every country, because there is no one set of barriers keeping women from timely and effective cancer care. Whether the solution is a mammovan – a mobile mammography unit – that can reach rural communities, or new technologies like saliva and blood tests or handheld ultrasounds that are inexpensive and easy to use, it is important that these services are delivered to women who need it, wherever they are.
Clearly, providing effective care for breast cancer to an entire population is a complex endeavor. There are many moving parts that have to work together for it to be effective. But underlying these infrastructure obstacles, we also know that the policies, programs and technologies will only have limited effect if we don’t address the social justice and cultural issues that prevent women taking action to attend to their own health needs. In many of the countries where we work, it’s not acceptable to be sick, especially if you’re a woman. Fear and stigma around illness still exists.
Real change comes about when women themselves band together to support each other. When those who’ve survived breast cancer stand up and tell their stories, they inspire others to do the same. They are changing the conversation – just as we had to do in the U.S. only a few decades ago. They’re saying, “I’ve made the journey, and so can you,” and in the process, they’re cultivating hope and empowering women everywhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls Hub.