“I believe that everyone has a role to play when it comes to change at the mass level”
REAL MEN WEAR PINK
This Breast Cancer Awareness month, we catch up with the CEO of Pink Ribbon Pakistan, Omer Aftab, to see what inspired this noble cause.
WHAT LED YOU TO STARTING THE PINK RIBBON IN PAKISTAN?
Well, it was a realization of the fact that breast cancer was spreading its tentacles everyday while our women were reluctant to report and seek treatment. I saw a number of women around me suffering in pain and despair, but they could not even talk about their disease openly. So, I realized that the taboo needed to be broken and the only way forward was to set up Pink Ribbon and gather the likeminded people and lobby the media, civil society and government to support the cause of spreading awareness.
DID A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH BREAST CANCER SET YOU ON A COURSE TO START THE FOUNDATION?
Yes, I had a friend Yasmeen who was diagnosed with breast cancer, but despite hailing from a very influential family, she could not avail treatment. We together started Pink Ribbon to raise awareness among and in the meanwhile, she passed away. It was a big emotional setback for me and I pledged to do my best to save other women from this fatal disease. The plight of the women I came across made me think of a dedicated organization for breast cancer awareness. Every time, I went through a situation, it used to jolt me inside and strengthen my resolve to help eradicate the disease from society.
PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY AND ANY DIFFICULTIES YOU FACED WHILE STARTING OUT?
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. When I founded Pink Ribbon and started awareness campaigns, people were not ready to listen and talk about breast cancer. Even the mainstream TV channels and newspapers resisted the use of the word “Breast”. I kept going with a strong will, as I knew there would come a day when the taboo would be no more. Of course, budgetary constraints were another issue. Since the very outset, Pink Ribbon has been a self-sustained drive and we never sought any government funding.
THERE IS SUCH A LACK OF AWARENESS REGARDING BREAST CANCER IN PAKISTAN. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS AND WHAT STEPS IS PINK RIBBON TAKING TO OVERCOME IT?
We directly reach out to more than 200,000 female students every year under our Youth Program. We train them on breast cancer prevention and breast self-examination. These students then become our ambassadors and carry the information and awareness forward. We also hold seminars and workshops time to time. Then every October, we run a nationwide PINKtober campaign. We have successfully created space on ground, public forums and main stream media to talk about breast cancer, break the myths and taboos attached with it.
IN A NUTSHELL, WHAT IS THE BASIS OF YOUR ORGANISATION?
We started with raising breast cancer awareness. After a certain period of time, we had collaboration with Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and we launched mobile mammogram units. We also started an extensive youth program with HEC. Now we are building Pakistan’s first dedicated breast cancer hospital that will be partially operational by June 2019.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE SPECIFIC SERVICES AND TREATMENTS YOU WILL OFFER AT THE HOSPITAL YOU ARE BUILDING?
By the grace of God and the support of people of Pakistan, we have successfully completed the first phase of the hospital, which is about 10,000 square feet out of total 30,000. We shall start the OPD in the second quarter of the next year. Once completed, the hospital will have chemotherapy and radiotherapy units along with a surgical unit. We shall also offer one-stop breast clinic, counselling services, mobile mammogram bus and a research center.
WOMEN ARE SUPRESSED FROM TALKING ABOUT ‘BREAST’ CANCER, ESPECIALLY IN RURAL AREAS. HOW CAN AWARENESS BE SPREAD TO ABOLISH THIS CONCEPT?
Media can work as a catalyst of change in this regard. Our mainstream media must include the content on breast cancer awareness in their programs and educate the masses. We are doing our best to reach out to maximum people through digital, mainstream media and other BTL activities. This is working as we see people feel less embarrassed in discussing breast cancer and seeking out treatment. Moreover, we have also been able to include a chapter on breast cancer awareness in the manual of Lady Health Workers because so far they have the largest on ground out reach in the rural areas of Pakistan.
HOW CAN THE GENERAL PUBLIC BE INVOLVED IN HELPING YOUR CAUSE?
I believe that everyone has a role to play when it comes to change at the mass level. People can join hands with us in our campaign by becoming mouthpieces of our cause. They can make donations to Pink Ribbon Hospital and they can help us spreading our word more effectively by joining our Volunteers Program.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE FROM PINK RIBBON IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
At the moment, we are completely focused on completing the hospital construction and equipping our hospital with world class state of the art technology so that breast cancer patients can get free or subsidized treatment under one roof. By the next five years, you will see Pink Ribbon Hospital fully operational and serving the masses and we shall be initiating another breast cancer hospital in Karachi.
LASTLY, THIS PINK-TOBER, WHAT WILL WE BE SEEING FROM PINK RIBBON’S END?
We have built this PINKtober around on a theme based initiative that is #SaveThe9th. This theme hinges around the concept that every 9th woman in Pakistan is at high risk of breast cancer and people should support us to build the hospital and save them all. In #SaveThe9th, we will do activation in more than 200 colleges and universities. We shall have a full-fledged digital campaign, outdoor activation, PR and media and other ATLs and BTLs and stay tuned to see while we do pink illumination of a very important landmark. We are also super excited to be working with your Sunday team in helping to raise funds for our hospital.