Cultural Aspects of Breast Cancer
Initially, one might expect many similarities between what a woman in a very isolated area in Canada and a Southeast Asian woman might experience in confronting breast cancer. Ranjit Kaur, the president of Reach to Recovery International, drew parallels in her workshop at The 4th World Conference on Breast Cancer. She talked about the difference in care, and access to it, for women in urban as opposed to rural settings. Meeka Mearns, a self-described survivor of Inuit descent, lives in Nunavut. Her plenary address dealt with her experience in combatting her own breast cancer.
Ms. Kaur spoke about how cancer marginalizes many Asian women. Because there exists a widespread belief that cancer is caused by religious or moral transgression, prejudice and discrimination result. Traditional alternative health practices may be sought in place of orthodox Western medicine, or as a follow-up to hospital treatment. Women tend to hide their condition from family, friends, and employers. They hope to spare loved ones worry, avoid stigmatization and rejection, and not be dismissed from employment or left without career development prospects.
The situation is different for northern Canadians. Ms. Mearns spoke of the delay she encountered from the day she first saw the local nurse, to the day, several weeks later, when the doctor came to the clinic. She acknowledged that the delay was actually more stressful than harmful to her, but this is clearly an issue for northern women. After the diagnosis was confirmed, she had to fly to Ottawa for surgery, returning every few weeks for chemotherapy, and relocating for six weeks of radiation therapy. She got excellent care, and was fortunate to have been able to rely on supportive friends and family to help her when she wasn't feeling well, and to look after her children when she was away.
If Ms. Mearns' experience is at all typical of women living in isolated areas in Canada, we can presume that, despite delays and the emotional cost of having to undergo treatment far from home, breast cancer is a disease talked about openly and for which they expect to get good treatment. This is not the case for impoverished Asian women. Ms. Kaur spoke of the need for better accessibility for poorer women, as well as a need to break the cycle of prejudice and discrimination, which constrains women from seeking treatment.