x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Cancer survivors take on Antarctica

A Dubai-based women's group will make an expedition to Antarctica in November to raise awareness about breast cancer.

ABU DHABI // A team of women who have beaten breast cancer are taking on a new challenge - conquering the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

Their training for the 12-day Jewels of Antarctica trek in November will include camping overnight at Ski Dubai in temperatures of -7°C.

"These are women who went thought a major health challenge and it's a second chance at life," said Julie Lewis of the breast cancer awareness group Mountain High, organisers of the trip.

"I think Antarctica is on a lot of people's bucket lists of places to go as it's one of the last major wildernesses on the planet."

The women - Emirati, Lebanese, South African, Italian, American and Scottish - set sail on November 22 from Ushuaia in Argentina, southernmost city in the world. They plan a flag-raising ceremony on National Day, December 2.

Dana Al Hammadi, 39, an Emirati, is making her second trip. "I went in 2011 because I wanted to be the first Emirati woman to be there," she said. "It's not just a fun trip; it takes courage to be there."

Once past the treacherous Drake Passage, between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands, it is plain sailing, according to Ms Al Hammadi.

She said the most notable feature was the near total silence broken only by the sound of ice falling from the mountains.

"Climate change has really affected the area," she said. "I want to do it every year if I have the financial support. There are lots of Emirati women who would want to do it for the challenge."

Despite base camp's creature comforts, including a chef, the trip is gruelling.

"All team members who signed up now have strict orders to forget about the elevators and take the stairs," Ms Lewis said.

"They have to do at least 30 minutes of endurance training a day - running, swimming, cycling … anything to get their cardiovascular strength up. Three times a week they must do strength training and we ask them to spend time on visualisation and picturing themselves in the Antarctic."

There are still places available on the trip. "At the moment we have nine signed up and the goal is to have 16," she said. "We are considering opening it up to friends of breast cancer survivors - like a sister, a friend or a mother."

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death among women in the UAE after cardiovascular disease. It accounts for 25 per cent of all deaths and 45 per cent of female cases in Abu Dhabi in 2010.

On average, 170 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the emirate.

Mountain High is looking for sponsors to cover the cost of air tickets and travel gear which costs up to Dh51,500.

"When you look at South Pole expeditions, they are predominantly male-driven," Ms Lewis said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but I think it's time in the 21st century for women to have a go at it.

"To have the 16 women who have gone through losing their hair, radiotherapy … to have done all that and still be alive and kicking and ready to go to the ends of the earth?"

eharnan@thenational.ae