ISLAMABAD: In June 2013, diplomat Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary was about to address a seminar in Islamabad when he got the call he had been expecting, and dreading, for weeks.
“It’s cancer,” the doctor on the other end of the line told Chaudhary, who was then the spokesperson for the foreign office and went on to become foreign secretary, the senior-most diplomat in Pakistan.
Chaudhry said he delivered the lecture, as planned, and then went to the hospital to receive an unlikely diagnosis: he had breast cancer, an illness that develops in men in less than one percent of all cases.
According to the Pakistan Medical Association, Pakistan has the highest rate of breast cancer in Asia, with approximately 90,000 new cases diagnosed every year, of which 40,000 people die. One out of every nine women in Pakistan are likely to suffer from the illness, but early diagnosis can push survival rates to 90 percent.
It is for this reason that Chaudhry, now retired and currently serving as director-general of Islamabad’s prestigious Institute of Strategic Studies (ISSI), has become a voice for breast cancer awareness and the need for its early detection and diagnosis.
“I decided to participate in breast cancer awareness programs as I felt it was my moral duty to tell my fellow citizens that it can be treated and defeated with early detection, courage and determination,” Chaudhry, who served at the foreign office for 37 years, with a final posting as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, told Arab News in an interview this week.
One of his chief concerns is spreading awareness that while breast cancer is more than 100 times more common in women, men can also develop the illness.
“Anyone can get it and one should not feel shy about it and go for diagnostics if there is any unusual growth,” Chaudhary said, saying the illness was sometimes riskier in men because in the absence of the dense breast tissue that women have, it could quickly spread to the ribs.
Speaking about his journey, the diplomat said he first noticed a small tumor on his left breast in May 2013, which a doctor initially misdiagnosed as an allergy.
“I went to another doctor who conducted a fine needle test which proved that it was cancer,” Chaudhry said. “This neglect of one month took my cancer from stage one to stage two and had it been a few more months, I may not have survived.”
Chaudhry says he did not take leave throughout this treatment and continued to address press briefings at the foreign office, as its spokesperson.
He is currently the president of the Patient Welfare Society at the Nuclear Medicine, Oncology and Radiotherapy Institute (NORI), a cancer hospital in the federal capital run by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC).
“Cancer treatment is very expensive, especially medicines for chemotherapy are really costly,” he said. “Our [NORI] society provides free medicines to needy patients and residence and food to their attendants,” he added, saying building more cancer hospitals was an urgent need in Pakistan.
Dr. Muhammad Faheem, a director at the NORI hospital, said Chaudhary had taken a lead in gathering donations and working to improve facilities at the hospital.
“If you look into international statistics, breast cancer in males constitutes less than one percent,” Faheem said. “In Pakistan, this percentage is higher, above three percent.”