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The only thing shameful about breast cancer is the stigma

Slowly, women are learning that there is no reason for shame about breast cancer, and that these reactions can be dangerous.

Everyone, at some point in his or her life, will have a fright over a health issue. That cold yet hot sensation as your heart races out of control, your mind in a daze as you try to make sense of it all.

That is the feeling I had as a teenager when, purely by chance, a friend ran into me during a basketball game at my all-girls school in Saudi Arabia. Another friend broke my fall by grabbing me under my arms.

"Hey, what is that under your arm?" she laughed, before running off after the ball.

That is when I felt a lump, and it was quite an obvious one. I couldn't believe that I had never noticed it before. Immediately, I was feeling afraid.

I had no knowledge about breast cancer, or any cancer to be honest. No one at school in the 1990s ever talked about it. They may have mentioned an "evil disease" in biology class, but it was made to sound irrelevant to a group of teenage girls.

It was something that only happened to "other" people. So I didn't say anything to anyone for over a month. But my mother suspected something was up, and cornered me one day.

I was so embarrassed and so shy. In some way, I thought it was shameful.

This is one of the core problems related to breast cancer for Arab women, indeed any woman in conservative communities, and worth noting as we mark Breast Cancer Awareness month. I was taught at a very young age to be "ashamed" of intimate body parts such as my breasts, so that I spent more time hiding them than making sure everything was OK.

Problems simply won't get detected if women avoid self exams that are imperative for early detection and treatment.

When two of my friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, it was because their husbands insisted they visit the doctor. Even the husbands hesitated initially, because they were embarrassed to point out anything that might offend or embarrass their wives.

Thankfully, this has changed drastically in recent years, with the help of national campaigns across the Arab world. In the UAE, there is the Pink Caravan with its mobile clinics that drive around the country checking women for breast cancer and empowering them with information.

According to a study conducted in 2010 by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies, women in the UAE tend to develop breast cancer at least a decade earlier than their counterparts in the West. Cancer is the third leading cause of death in the UAE, with breast cancer being the most common malignancy among females.

Thankfully, my mother - who is now fighting her own battle against breast cancer - made sure I was OK back then. She took me to a doctor the next day, who did a biopsy and found the lump was benign. It was removed and I was back to playing basketball within a week.

We are so lucky today to have options. Since now I have a family history of breast cancer, I have started annual ultrasound check-ups. They are painless, and I recommend then for all young women with a family history of the disease. For women over 40, an annual mammogram is recommended.

While there are no guarantees, there are factors listed by the US National Cancer Institute that increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer: dense breasts, menstruation beginning before age 12, menopause after age 55, a first full-term pregnancy after age 30, never having been pregnant, obesity after menopause and alcohol use.

A nipple that is flat or inverted may be a symptom of cancer, although not necessarily. But that was what led one of my friends to check and it saved her life. This is just one example.

There is no shame in self exams. It also affects men, if not as often, and they too should check.

I am grateful that I have a mother that never made me feel ashamed.



On Twitter: @ArabianMau

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