DUBAI // When Dr Houriya Kazim graduated from medical school a decade ago, she could not get the word "breast" listed on her UAE medical certificate. The breast cancer awareness brochures she used to haul back from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons in Ireland, where she earned her degree, were routinely confiscated because officials at the Ministry of Interior deemed them pornographic. Attitudes towards breast cancer - a disease responsible for one-fifth of all female deaths worldwide - have come a long way since then, said Dr Kazim, who specialises in breast cancer surgery and runs her own clinic, Well Woman, in Dubai.
However, negative stereotypes persist, she told a breast cancer awareness event at the Burj Al Arab hotel yesterday. "We live in a world where, when you hear the word 'breast', you either think disease, or sex," Dr Kazim said. There are 1.1 million new cases of the disease diagnosed every year worldwide and the figure is expected to rise dramatically over the next decade. It is also the second-biggest killer of women in the UAE, behind heart disease, causing 9.3 per cent of female deaths, said Laila al Jassmi, director of health funding at Dubai Health Authority, who also spoke at the event.
There are no official statistics available regarding the breast cancer rate in the UAE, because no centralised body exists to collect such information from doctors and hospitals. The gathering of statistics is also complicated by the fact that 85 per cent of the population are expatriates, and that many people seek medical treatment abroad. While breast cancer figures in the Middle East generally mimic those in the rest of the world, one notable difference is that women in the region are diagnosed at an average age of 40 - almost 10 years earlier than women in other developed countries such as the US or Australia.
The reasons for the phenomenon are unclear, but it should be researched, said Dr Kazim. In 2002, Dr Kazim established a non-profit organisation called Breast Friends to disseminate information about the disease. There is also a support group - the only one of its kind in Dubai - for women with breast cancer. "It is not only about wearing a pink ribbon," she said. "There is more awareness in the UAE about breast cancer, but we must now focus on education."
Breast Friends also produced a 90-second video. showing patients and survivors talking about their experiences, that is being aired on BBC World, as well as the Dubai Media and Showtime channels throughout October as part of the annual awareness campaign. Diana Hamade, a lawyer in Dubai, asked Dr Kazim if a preventive mastectomy was an option for women worried about their genetic chances of getting breast cancer.
Ms Hamade said her mother died from the disease one month ago, after fighting it for eight years. Ms Hamade recalled her mother's journey as "an awful battle". It took two years for her to be diagnosed, which complicated her treatment. Doctors were "so surprised she was alive", said Ms Hamade. "And every time we returned, they were even more surprised." Her mother eventually had a double mastectomy; five years later the cancer had spread to her lungs.
Despite the bitter circumstances, Ms Hamade remembers her mother laughing and living like she was healthy. "She would come back from chemotherapy smiling and start talking to me about my daughter," she said. "She lost her hair but got wigs, and even got her nails done all the time." While cancer is often considered a death sentence, Dr Kazim cautioned women against making any rash decisions due to fear, such as preventive mastectomies.
It is important to conduct regular self-examinations, she added, and reminded women that generally only one in 10 lumps were cancerous. "Our breasts are not excess baggage," said Dr Kazim. "You cannot go around taking bits of your body out because you are afraid." firstname.lastname@example.org