Musa Karim Ripon, a third year student in the economics Department of Islamic University, Kushtia, still remembers the day when he heard about the untimely death of his aunt in 2013. After fighting with breast cancer for two years, she had finally given in. Ripon felt distraught losing his beloved aunt as she was no less than a mother. What made the whole scenario even grimmer was that she was aware of her sickness but too embarrassed to reveal it. However, when she finally did, it was too late.
Ripon's family faced two more shocks when his own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and his paternal grandmother with cervical cancer. This time, the family did not delay in getting help for both. While Ripon's mother survived the ordeal, his grandmother is still under treatment.
Enduring all this, Ripon expressed his concern to his friend Saiful Islam Musa, a final year student of Government Homeopathic Medical College, Mirpur. They soon realised that social stigma surrounding the topic, irregular medical checkups, poor awareness campaigns in rural areas and scarcity in proper cancer facilities in the country have always been the main reasons as to why Bangladeshi women have high mortality rate once inflicted with breast or cervical cancer. According to a Daily Star report, two thirds of breast cancer deaths and 9 out of 10 deaths from cervical cancer occur in low- and middle income countries (LMICs).
Ripon and Musa felt it was time to make a difference. Towards the end of 2015, Ripon and Musa founded a non-profit volunteer organisation named Cancer Awareness Programme for Women, or CAP in short. Through CAP, they were planning to raise awareness amongst both the men and women in and outside the community, talk more about breast cancer and also organise camps for women to get free checkups.
The entire 2016 stood as a test for the founders of CAP. Ripon and Musa were rebuked by friends and family for the initiative they took. They faced numerous criticisms and were told to not pursue such “nasty topics”, even having their integrity questioned. However, Ripon's university teachers were always by his side, providing courage and confidence. “My teachers did not fail me. Instead of doubting my purpose, the faculties stood by my side and motivated us for our initiative,” says Ripon. The teachers did not stop only at motivating the pair. When Ripon and Musa proposed to the university to hold a day long cancer awareness seminar, their faculties took upon the responsibility of ensuring a high student turnout. With more than 150 people attending the event, their hard work paid off.
When The Bangladesh Breast Cancer Awareness Forum organised Pink Road Show across Dhaka city to raise awareness on breast cancer in 2015 and 2016, cancer specialists, survivors, social workers and volunteers participated in the road show and demonstrated their solidarity by wearing pink and distributed leaflets containing important information on breast cancer. Musa and Ripon attended the day-long event both the years. There, they came across Dr Habibullah Talukder Ruskin, Associate Professor at National Institute of Cancer Research and Hospital and Professor Dr Sabera Khatun of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. Besides knowledge and appreciation, the duo took back home the idea to compile a pamphlet where the more information on breast and cervical cancer were mentioned. “It took a lot of research on our part to design the pamphlet. We incorporated diagrams too, just in case someone does not know how to read,” says Musa.
While spreading awareness about breast and cervical cancer through posters, leaflets, pamphlets, rallies and holding seminars in Islamic University and Jiban Nagar Degree College in Kushtia, Ripon and Musa decided to extend their helping hand to the underprivileged women of Mohakhali slum areas in Dhaka. On Mother's day last month, CAP organised a day-long breast and cervical cancer awareness and diagnosis campaign where 120 women were provided with free diagnosis tests and medicine. At the Infectious Diseases Hospital's conference room beside the slum, a discussion on “Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention” was also organised. Dr Sabera Khatun was invited as the chief guest and Professor Ashrafunnessa, also of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, was present as a special guest. “Even though we had very limited funds, we could reach out to many who wanted to help spread the awareness,” says Musa.
Currently, CAP is focusing on launching a website in Bangla where all the information regarding breast and cervical cancer would be available. Besides, the founders also plan on making informative videos, aimed at helping people in remote areas of Bangladesh. “We also have a dream of owning a Cancer Awareness Caravan that would roam around the country, offering free screening and education on breast and cervical cancer,” adds Ripon.
By spreading awareness, eliminating stigma from the society and showing the path to recovery, CAP wants to save each and every woman of the country from the claws of cancer. The two youths, Ripon and Musa, march forward like valiant soldiers, carrying the pink and white badge. Let's hear their call.