In Egypt, women battle breast cancer and social stigma

While the disease affects Egyptians of all socio-economic backgrounds, the poor have an especially rough road, finding it difficult to finance the costs of effective treatment.
Sunday 03/11/2019
A doctor checks an X-ray image of a patient’s breast at a hospital in the Giza province. (Saeed Shahat)
A battle that could prove challenging. A doctor checks an X-ray image of a patient’s breast at a hospital in the Giza province. (Saeed Shahat)

CAIRO - When Huda Ahmed was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, she prepared for a long, painful journey to defeat the disease.

What she never imagined was that her physical ailment would come with social repercussions, leading to the breakdown of her marriage at the most vulnerable point in her life.

“I had to undergo a surgery to remove a breast because of the tumour,” said Ahmed, who is in her mid-40s, “but this caused a total change in the way my husband viewed me.”

Ahmed’s story is far from unique. Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, the most common form of the disease in Egypt, often face social stigma or lose their spouses during their physical battle.

The Egyptian Health Ministry said breast cancer is detected in approximately 28,000 women in the country every year. It is most common among older women but prevalent among middle-aged women as well, with 86 out of every 100,000 women between the ages of 40-45 receiving a diagnosis every year.

While the disease affects Egyptians of all socio-economic backgrounds, the poor have an especially rough road, finding it difficult to finance the costs of effective treatment.

Reem Emad, the deputy manager at Egypt’s National Cancer Institute, the largest state-run cancer hospital in the country, said breast cancer is the most difficult form of the disease for women “because it attacks a pivotal part of the female body.”

This is why it comes with social repercussions, often including strains within marriages, victims said.

Ahmed said she sensed a gradual change in her husband’s attitude towards her once she was diagnosed with breast cancer but especially after she had breast removal surgery.

“I noticed the change in his attitude to me,” Ahmed said. “This attitude morphed into total withdrawal from initial sympathy.”

Ahmed’s husband secretly married another woman, after which Ahmed demanded a divorce.

In Egypt, many breast cancer victims die of the disease, especially if it is not detected until its late stages, but the country is working to increase awareness about the importance of frequent exams to detect the disease early.

Health authorities began a nationwide campaign of free exams at hospitals and clinics for women of all ages.

Still, the social trauma that breast cancer victims endure remains.

While there are no statistics on how many divorces are linked to health-related reasons, experts said the numbers are high.

Mohamed Abdurrahman, an oncology professor at Ain Shams University who specialises in the treatment of breast cancer, said many of his patients were stigmatised or divorced after being diagnosed with the disease.

“Sometimes breast cancer patients face positive discrimination when those around them show sympathy,” Abdurrahman said. “Other times, people are afraid to come close to the patient, especially when symptoms, such as hair loss, appear.”

Abdurrahman recalled the story of a patient who died of the disease a few years ago. He said the woman, in her 30s, refused to undergo chemotherapy, lest she lose her hair and stop being attractive to her husband. She opted for breast-conserving surgery but her husband divorced her anyway.

When she remarried, she told her new husband that the scar in her breast was caused from the removal of a benign tumour.

“Unfortunately, the tumour metastasised and she had to get chemotherapy,” Abdurrahman said. “She refused all treatment options for social and marriage-related reasons” and died shortly thereafter, he said.

Other women, such as Ahmed, who lives in her family home, survive the disease but find it difficult to move on after being neglected by their spouse.

“It is very difficult to be abandoned by those closest to you at the time you need them the most,” said Ahmed.

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