The Increasing Threat of Breast Cancer in Pakistan

Pakistan has the highest breast cancer rates in Asia and among the highest mortality rates. Experts still don’t know why.

Zuha Siddiqui

December 15, 2022

The Increasing Threat of Breast Cancer in Pakistan
Students walk past a banner promoting awareness on breast cancer at a university in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Nothing specific made 30-year-old Zahra Khan decide to self-examine her breasts that December morning, apart from the fact that October had recently passed by, and with it, a plethora of breast cancer awareness programs. When she checked her breasts, she didn’t follow a particular method — no three fingers, no circular motion. “I was just feeling my breasts, and I felt something, a lump, on top of my left breast, protruding out,” she said. “I had no symptoms. I was literally as normal as one could be.” 

Two weeks and an ultrasound, a mammogram, and a biopsy later, in January 2022, Khan was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma, stage 2. It was five centimeters when she got it, and it was grade three, which meant it was growing fast. Her diagnosis indicated that she had one of the hardest cancers to treat and, even if treated, it would likely come back. 

After a year of treatment — including 16 sessions of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery — Khan is now in remission. But the disease has taken its toll on her. When we spoke on the phone, Khan mentioned dark thoughts that seep into her head when she is at her lowest and nightmares of the cancer coming back. “I was a fighter this past year, but now that the bulk of my treatment is over and done with, I am starting to work on my mental health,” she said. “I’m still working, baking cheesecakes, traveling, meeting friends, but the dark thoughts persist, and I am trying really hard to fight them off.” 

Pakistan has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in Asia. A 2007 study estimated one out of every nine women in Pakistan will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, the highest incidence rate in Asia. Further research indicates that an estimated 50,000 Pakistani women die of the disease annually. Pakistan’s high breast cancer mortality rates also defy global statistics.