Is there a stigma surrounding breast cancer in the British South Asian community?

Data collated by the American Cancer Society found breast cancer to be the second most common cancer for women, with roughly 1 in 8 developing an invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) at some point in their lifetime. Similar statistics are found within studies focusing on global cancer trends, yet there is still a sizeable stigma attached to receiving treatment for the disease in certain cultures. In fact, recently a multitude of news outlets have reported there to be cases where the victim has died from breast cancer due to a reluctance to seek diagnosis and medical help. In this sense, one must question how a stigma can exist that is seen as so socially damaging that it comes before the victims own health or on the other hand the desire to protect and ensure the survival of a family member or friend.

In Britain, the South Asian community is most frequently associated with carrying a breast cancer stigma. Primarily, the stigma attached to breast cancer comes from perceiving the disease as a taboo subject culminating in a lack of understanding about the causes, symptoms and treatments associated with an IDC. The minimal knowledge surrounding the disease enables the spread of incorrect and stigmatising cultural and religious beliefs which make women less likely to seek diagnosis and medial help. Most commonly, the damning religious belief found within the South Asian community in the UK is that the finding of a cancerous lump is due to that individual living a sinful life and thus God is punishing her.

Widespread support for this belief likely results in an increase self-misdiagnosis of breast cancer as a skin abnormality in order to avoid the idea that God is punishing you, as well as a rise in depression amongst those diagnosed with breast cancer due to feeling deserted by both their community and their religion. In this case it should be considered unsurprising that a report conducted by Bridgewater NHS in 2015 found South Asian women aged between 15-64 years had a significantly reduced survival rate for breast cancer.

A final influencing factor on the stigma attached to breast cancer to be considered is the impact of the cultural expectations of how the wife and family should be. Principally these expectations are related to the marriage prospects of both the children and the patient. In the case of the children, the lack of widespread knowledge about cancer means that it is perceived as a certain cause of death for any future generations who are directly linked to the original patient. In this sense, admittance and seeking medical help for breast cancer has detrimental ramifications for the marriage prospects of the children.

Furthermore, the importance placed upon purity extends to the wife as well as the children with there being multiple reports of an unwillingness to go for smear tests due to fear of being considered defiled by the community. These two consequences further highlight the extreme and long-lasting implications of breast cancer stigma within the South Asian community in the UK.

Seemingly the main cause of breast cancer stigma in South Asian community’ in the UK is the absence of factual knowledge about the disease enabling the spread of cultural and religious beliefs. Therefore, one must question whether increased funding for teaching and training about how to spot breast cancer and the dangers of it would have an immediate impact on the rates of South Asian women surviving the disease?