Pinkathon: How India's largest women's run is raising awareness about breast cancer

Breast cancer, if caught at an early stage is curable. But due to lack of awareness, 50 percent of breast cancer patients in India present themselves to a doctor at third or fourth stage when the chances of survival are low — leading to more cases of deaths than the number of survivors.

Hence to spread information about early detection, thousands of women ran under the banner Pinkathon in Bengaluru on the morning of 29 January. Each participant was given a free mammogram check worth Rs 4,000 that they can avail at any city hospital, or pass on to a friend if needed.

A mammogram is an X-Ray of a breast that every women above 60 years of age should get done on an yearly basis. Women in the age group of 25 to 50 years of age should learn to do a self breast examination, just after their menstrual cycle starts. They should know what their normal breasts feel like, so that they can report to a gynecologist if there is any change — if there is a nipple sore, a lump, a dimpling.

 Pinkathon: How Indias largest womens run is raising awareness about breast cancer

Runners at the Pinkathon 2017 in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy: Facebook

"Women don't consider themselves a priority. Everyone in the house is more important to them than themselves," says Reema Sanghavi, co-founder of Pinkathon, India's biggest women run.

Held in across eight cities — including Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Guwahati, Mumbai, and Hyderabad — Pinkathon has about 10,000 women participating in each city. Though mainly an awareness raising campaign, it contributes a minimum of Rs 5 lakh per event to Women Cancer Initiative (WCI), an NGO in partnership with Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai that funds treatment of breast and cervical cancer in women from lower socio-economic strata.

"Health care is a basic human need," says Deveika Bhojwani, founder of WCI and a breast cancer survivor, who addresses the women before flag-off at Pinkathon. She talks about rural women who sometimes, even when realising they have cancer, keep quiet about it "because they think it will be a drain on their family's (resources)."

All of us have some cancer cells in our body that start to show up, add, and multiply when our immunity is low. Running builds up one's immunity, and also keeps the fat cells at bay which can store cancer cells. "It was the perfect marriage of two thoughts — how running helps women stay fit, but also vis-a-vis cancer and in particular breast cancer," says Bhojwani, about the time when she and Milind Soman, co-founder of Pinkathon joined hands in 2012 for the cause.

Pinkathon aims for women to adopt a fitter lifestyle. It holds year-round weekly fitness training for women for free around the cities. Some 200 women, majority being housewives or working in the corporte world, between the age of 35 to 50 attend these in Bangalore alone. Cancer survivors also participate.

"We tell women that you and your me-time is important," says Sanghavi. Data confirms that women struggle to balance fitness with work and home. Only 11.76 percent of all marathon runners in India are women. Most women in the weekly training sessions often question how to fit in that extra hour on the weekend — and stress that it should not have an impact on her entire week. "Fundamental mindset change is required," says Bhumika Patel, a fitness trainer in Bangalore.

Between yoga and a gentle workout, cancer survivors find a supportive system among other women to open up about their struggles. Patel got acquainted with Pinkathon when her mother, who is now cancer-free, contracted the disease. She found the community helped her transformation. "Through it, I met other survivors or their immediate family — and it helped me cope with what I was going through. Before that I had not talked about breast cancer with anyone else except my immediate family," she says.

While the marathon has the 3k, 5k, 10k, 21k, and 42k stretch, some women also ran much longer stretches from Mumbai to Pune, Chennai to Bengaluru, etc. Neilima Pudota, who covered 350 km barefoot from Vijaywanda to Vishakhapatnam in seven days, says, "It's astonishing how our mind stops us from exploring our potential. Something I thought was not possible at all for a person who transitioned to barefoot hardly 5 months ago... in fact, I was ready to run a few more km!"

Pinkathon also holds events beside the big main-day running event. They held a run with visually-impaired and hearing-impaired women recently. It also reaches out to tribal women, women working as household helps, and rural women, to participate.

In the last five years, over a lakh of women have become breast aware because of Pinkathon, and as Patel says, "They are now comfortable at least talking about breasts and cancer, while they were earlier very shy." Every participant is asked to be a Pink ambassador by passing on the message to their mothers, grand mothers, mother-in-laws, friends, aunts, because it can save their lives.

The marathon would next be held in Hyderabad on 26 February.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 10:27:26 IST