Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Breast Cancer: Not Just the Problem of Rich Countries Anymore

Whenever I see fundraisers for breast cancer, like breast cancer walks and "Buy Pink" products, I tend to get a little case of "fundraiser jealousy". For much of my undergraduate degree, I've studied extreme poverty, and the diseases, humans rights violations, and the opportunity deprivations associated with it.

Preventable diseases--like malaria and dysentry--are some of the biggest killers in Developing nations [a term which some scholars dispute because it implies that those countries are, in fact, developing, instead of the more accurate portrayal that they are being mired deeper in poverty].

Maternal Death claims approximately 536,00 women a year (99 percent of which occur in Developing nations), and most of the deaths are also completely preventable. (And of course, this number doesn't include the annual70,000 unsafe abortion deaths that mainly result from the criminalization of abortion.) I thought about breast cancer as a "rich nation's disease," and begrudginly glared at "pink products" wondering if they were made in sweatshops that expose women to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals.

Recent studies, however, show that breast cancer is on the rise in developing nations (my first thoughts: That means their life expectancies are increasing to the point that they can get old enough to develop breast cancer!)--and that breast cancer affects women in developing nations about 10 years earlier than in industrialized nations (Shoot! I guess not. *runs in corner and cries.* )

What makes matters worse is that approximately two thirds of women are not diagnosed until the cancer has spread. Apparently there's a stigma attached to breast cancer; women are reluctant to get tested because they fear that if they lost a breast, their husband would leave them--which would force them into a situation of deeper poverty. (If that sounds like a nasty thing that could only happen "somewhere else," I'm afraid I have to refer you to Salon.com's article Sex without Nipples in which that theory is sorely refuted.) Estimates say that developing countries will experience a 36 percent increase in breast cancer by 2020, and that 55 percent of the world's expected breast cancer deaths this year will occur in developing countries.

So. Turns out breast cancer is not just a "Rich Nation's problem." My personal misguided theories are hereby flung out the window, and maybe my fundraising jealousy will subside. Talks are even beginning about starting an international task force that will develop methods to detect breast cancer earlier (through training midwives to detect breast cancer) and negotiate lower prices for generic chemotherapy. Whether or not these efforts meet with success is testy--they're sure to meet with opposition from governments, currently installed health professionals who have biases against midwives, and cultural norms.

Whether or not the cure for breast cancer, once discovered, would be shared with women in developing countries is a question we'll have to face once we get there. Considering our record in helping out developing nations with their preventable deaths, however, I'm not too optimistic.

Photo Credit: The Mayor of Worldwide Breast Cancer on flickr.com

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