Breast Cancer, Poverty and the Will to Survive

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer in women in both developed and developing countries. However, the incidence of breast cancer is increasing in developing countries due to increased life expectancy, urbanization and the adoption of western culture. In 2004, 519, 000 women succumbed to this disease with 69% of those deaths occurring in developing countries where diagnosis occurs in the late stages of the disease.[3]


The question then remains, what to do about this retched disease that is relentless in wreaking havoc on the lives of so many women in these developing countries where there are no pink ribbons, walks for cure or mega media to spread the word? The New York Times health article Uganda Fights Stigma and Poverty to Take on Breast Cancer drove home the message of urgency in regards to helping poverty stricken women facing breast cancer in the developing world. Two of the women featured were Ms Namata,48 who has been living with malignant tumors for four years before seeking help and her hope of survival. It also includes a video clip of a woman Jessy Acen 30 with advanced stage breast cancer who narrates in her own words her journey from discovering a lump to treatment. Her argument so profound when she affirms that it is better to have AIDS than cancer because you can receive treatment for AIDS for free but with cancer there is either no treatment or treatment runs out quickly. [2]

As I watched her being bathed by her twin sister I look at her mutilated chest that has been ravaged by breast cancer, leaving behind evidence of both physical and mental anguish which makes me lament about the barriers these women face which prevents them from receiving lifesaving treatment. Barriers such as lack of early detection programs, lack of adequate diagnosis and treatment facilities,[1] cultural barriers, stigma and the health disparities around the world. What would we do if faced with large tumors, drainage, decaying flesh, pain, abandonment and fear of dying?

It is the goal of global health to mitigate the burden of disease and disability around the world but generating priority in global health is challenging when there is so much at stake, so much human suffering and having to decide what disease process is more urgent than the other. I ask again, what would we do? Would we be able to deem the afflictions of another more pressing and urgent? Non-communicable diseases in Africa such as breast cancer for years has been left without a voice as more acute diseases such as malaria and AIDS captivates the attention of the global community. [2] In essence, health priorities requires that those diseases that impose the largest burden on human life be recognized and then cost effective interventions identified for those diseases in an effort to save more lives[3] but the sting of death remains for those who just could not be helped in time.

[1] World Health Organization. Breast Cancer: prevention and control 2013

[2] The New York Times Health: Uganda Fights Stigma and Poverty to Take On Breast Cancer, October 16, 2013

[3] Disease Control Priorities Project. Priorities in Health: Success in Addressing Priorities 2006


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