x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

How a 'pink majlis' shed light on a silent killer

In the Middle East cancer victims often suffer in silence because they are afraid of others in their community finding out.

'There is no shame in having breast cancer," said Salama, a 48-year-old survivor of the disease. While it may seem odd for the word "shame" to appear in a sentence anywhere near this horrible illness, in the Middle East cancer victims often suffer in silence because they are afraid of others in their community finding out. Sometimes an entire family may be stigmatised as one to avoid marrying into because one member has had cancer.

"I was afraid what people would say about my children, and I was worried that no one would want to marry my daughters when they found out about my cancer, but then I realised I shouldn't worry about ignorant people and that I should openly discuss my cancer if it helps others," Salama said. She was a guest at a gathering of women organised by Sheikha Noor Al Qassimi, a "pink majlis" in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Emirati and expatriate women of all ages and from all walks of life met and discussed one of the region's most deadly silent killers.

It is admirable to have prominent young women (Sheikha Noor is only 23) reaching out to the community and connecting people who otherwise might never have met. "It is critical that the public's attention be drawn towards such serious health issues and I feel it is my duty to do whatever I can to help bring such matters to the forefront," Sheikha Noor says. She is hoping to open a support group for women that will include experts as well as survivors, to help victims who may have no one to turn to.

In a culture highly dependent on family and keeping things within the family, it was refreshing to see how women, even those from the most conservative backgrounds, can open up about private matters and be candid about their fears and worries over misinformation. Many survivors at the majlis felt alone in their struggle because of the lack of established support groups, but managed to find each other and support each other during treatment. Two were only 30, one with children, one without, disproving the widely held belief that breast cancer strikes only a particular group of women of a particular age. And neither had a history of breast cancer in their family.

As well as survivors, representatives from the Abu Dhabi Health Authority were there to answer questions. What I thought would be a sombre affair turned out to be a meeting of inquisitive minds, an inspiration, and one of those rare occasions when it was OK to admit to being afraid. One of my childhood friends died from breast cancer, mainly because she never self-examined herself. By the time doctors detected the tumour, the cancer was in the late stages.

We are taught in our culture and in our schools that it is ayb, shameful, to touch certain parts of your body. We carry that message with us into adulthood and end up paying with our lives. I know some women hesitate to examine their breasts out of fear of what they might find, which is understandable but needs to be dealt with. Thankfully, that notion is changing. As the October Breast Cancer Month pink ribbon is distributed in schools throughout the UAE, at least we can feel assured that the message is going out for women to practise self-examination to help in early detection.

One of the issues that came up, and it's something I have heard from numerous women aged over 40, is that if the mammogram examination itself were less painful, then more women would go more regularly. One of the survivors put it best when she said: "It is not a screening procedure, but a screaming one." Because it works, no one has bothered to improve upon it. But medical scientists really need to address this if they want more women to volunteer for mammograms. I have yet to convince my own mother to go back after a painful experience two years ago. I don't even want to think about my own reaction to regular screening, since I'm averse to hospital visits in general.

Another issue is that some GPs themselves don't know what to look for in breast cancer. "So always trust your intuition," one of the doctors at the majlis said. What a great idea it was to turn a common occasion into an uncommon meeting of minds, and to have some of my own questions answered in the comfort of a home setting. rghazal@thenational.ae