Back to contents

Beating Breast Cancer Stigma

Oct/06/2023 / by Team Seema
A senior woman battling Cancer is embraced by her daughter as they sit outside enjoying the sunshine. The senior woman is dressed casually and has a head scarf on while her daughter hugs her from behind. Both are smiling as they enjoy the close moment together.

Why South Asian women still face myths and misinformation

Though Breast Cancer Awareness Month has been celebrated every October for nearly 40 years, South Asian women can still face a unique stigma when dealing with the disease. New research by Dr. Ranak Trivedi, a Stanford clinical psychologist, finds that myths persist in South Asian culture that breast cancer is contagious or deserved. “Because of stigma, the individual may feel isolated because it’s not easy to share this as a diagnosis,” said Dr Trivedi. 

Girls with a family history of the disease may be considered unmarriageable. Many women also feel shame about baring their breasts to doctors. This prompts many women to delay potentially life-saving treatment. 

Even when they do seek treatment, many South Asian women in the U.S. don’t disclose their diagnosis to their communities, even to close family members. As a result, they miss out on much-needed emotional and practical support during a time when they may need it the most. 

To that end, Dr. Trivedi recently led a study exploring psychosocial needs of South Asian breast cancer survivors in the U.S. Participants emphasized the isolation they felt, lacking the communal embrace cancer patients receive in South Asian countries like India. Caregivers also felt ignored. While survivors trusted Western medicine, they desired more culturally relevant information and resources in their native languages to share with family.

She suggests that more materials are needed to address the facts and myths around breast cancer. Culturally specific guidance, such as vegetarian diet plans and Punjabi- or Hindi-language materials, should also be considered in a more holistic treatment of breast cancer.  But most importantly, normalizing the condition in South Asian communities can help build a support network that can help all women facing a new or existing diagnosis.

BOXES

Breast cancer is increasing at a rate of 1.9% a year. 

1 in 8 South Asian women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime

pretty woman cancer pink scarf at home

Underdiagnosed ADHD

Cultural norms can mask symptoms until later in life

Good grades and extracurricular awards might normally be seen as proud accomplishments, but overachievement can actually mask signs of neurodivergence in Asian communities, according to new research. In fact, studies have shown that for every 100 white children diagnosed with ADHD only 48 Asian children share the diagnosis.

Model minority myths continue to shoulder much of the blame, as children are believed to be seen as well-behaved and good students—even when they may be struggling in reality. Cultural norms and high parental expectations can also play a part in underdiagnosis. 

“I see resistance from families and parents around ADHD often, until things reach a crisis point,” says Niranjan Karnik, a psychiatry professor at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Medicine. Often, parents try or believe that the problem can be solved with willpower and discipline. 

But without proper diagnosis or treatment, many South Asian women and girls secretly suffer from high anxiety trying to keep up appearances. Parents often compensate for struggles by keeping children on track for homework and other reminders, but a lack of a proper diagnosis can result in depression and anxiety, especially later in life as that support system falters. 

Researchers suggest more attention needs to be paid to this unique community, especially in the US where the problem is masked further with unconscious and conscious bias. As more women come forward with ADHD diagnoses, the community of support can also grow.

BOX:

Only 2% of Asian American children are diagnosed with ADHD. In Asian countries, this rate of ADHD hovers around 6%, leading researchers to suspect cultural biases are at play.

Hidden Fat

Portrait of happy woman embracing her senior mother with love

When self-advocacy can save your life

Though Asian Americans have lower BMIs than the U.S. white population, they are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes—a figure that rises even further when looking specifically at South Asians. But without being trained on what to look for, doctors can miss key signs. 

In particular, Asian Americans tend to deposit fat around the organs and in the muscle around the heart—which can look like “skinny fat” say doctors, when people look thin, but still may be at high risk for inflammation and insulin resistance. 

While more research is needed, South Asians can keep in mind specific guidelines for preventive care. For instance, the American Diabetes Association recommends Asian Americans get screened for diabetes at a body mass index (BMI) of 23, instead of the BMI of 25 recommended for the general population. 

Blood test screening also can miss key factors in Asian Americans, since much of the screening research was based on people of European descent.  In one test, the levels of sugar attached to the protein hemoglobin (AC1) are tested. While current guidance says 6.5% or higher might mean diabetes, this level can be lower in Asians. If you receive a result that falls in the  5.7% to 6.4% range, you may want to request further testing. 

By knowing these unique cultural factors, patients can more easily advocate for themselves, and take the extra steps needed to get additional screening, while also making healthy exercise and diet choices to keep even “skinny fat” at bay.

Sidebar

Enroll & Earn for South Asian Health 

In order to bring more research and awareness to heart health, a new study is enrolling South Asians between the ages of 18 to 65 years who do not already have heart disease but who have some risk factors. The study is currently looking for mother-daughter pairs in the Chicagoland area, with daughters who are 11-16 years old. Participants can join group exercise classes, get health screenings, meet other South Asians, and earn up to $180. Enroll at sahelistudy.org