It's Pink October, and that means a month of events focused on heightening awareness of breast cancer and fostering more pragmatic attitudes.
Look, learn and act on breast cancer
Women are wearing pink ribbons, there's a Facebook campaign and pink-themed benefits are being held the world over, because October doesn't just mean it's finally cool enough to eat outside again. It means it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Here in the UAE, the message has been publicised through things like sponsored walks, fashion shows and even lighting the Burj al Arab in pink, while this year in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, the Pink October and Safe & Sound campaigns are staging events and programmes to educate women about the disease and the importance of early diagnosis.
At the heart of it all lie some sobering facts.
Breast cancer is the most common form of the disease in the Emirates, according to the UAE Cancer Registry. It is the second leading cause of death in women, after heart disease, and has a particularly high incidence and mortality rate of 44 per cent because it is often detected too late. Specialists also say that women are being diagnosed with the disease at a younger age in the UAE than in other parts of the world.
"In the West, it tends to be a disease of the older woman. Here we see ladies in their 30s presenting [showing symptoms of the disease] regularly, and a few who are much younger, in their teens or 20s," explains Jan O'Brien, the nurse manager at Tawam Hospital's Breast Care Centre in Al Ain. "I would say, roughly, we're seeing ladies present a good 10 years younger than we would in western countries."
Although the patients are often younger, this does not necessarily mean the disease is being caught earlier because, as O'Brien points out, they are still coming in "all at different stages".
"We don't know why," she adds. "It's something that would make a great research programme."
Apart from the facilities at its specialist breast cancer centre, Tawam has been operating a mobile mammography unit for the past 18 months in Abu Dhabi for Emiratis and any woman residing in the city, and O'Brien is keen to have this more widely known.
"In a normal month, between the unit and the care centre itself we would screen approximately 250 women. During October, I would hope to screen 600 between them," she says.
The mobile unit will be at Khalidyah Mall in Abu Dhabi later this week (from 10am-10pm on Thursday, Friday and Sunday), and is particularly useful for women here in the absence of a cohesive UAE screening programme.
Generally, O'Brien suggests that women should check their breasts once a month, a week after menstruation. Tawam Hospital then recommends that a woman have her first mammogram at 40, and annually thereafter unless otherwise advised by a doctor. If there's a family history of the disease, though, or of ovarian cancer, then the recommendation is to start at 35.
Screening can identify a cancer in situ as much as a year before you'd be able to feel it yourself, or even earlier. "Depending on what type of mammography you have, some will show two years before you have a lump," says O'Brien. The survival rate when it is caught at such an early stage is 90 per cent.
O'Brien, who has been working at the hospital for 21 years, says that although there is less of a stigma attached to breast cancer in the UAE than in some places, there are still hurdles to overcome.
"Many cultures think that cancer is a punishment for wrongdoings in the past, something that can be caught from someone if you mix with them and they have cancer," she says, explaining that although it is not quite like that in the UAE, attitudes can present difficulties, especially with regard to this kind of cancer.
"It's more of a reluctance to talk about a very personal, hidden part of the body," she says. "And also the fear of treatment, you know? The first thing you connect with cancer is, 'I'm going to die,' and the second is, 'I'm going to lose my hair.'"
However, awareness is trickling through to the younger generation, she says. "They're exposed to more articles, to more internet, to more education and they're now paying more attention to their general health."
There remains, however, groundwork to be done in working towards a free, national screening programme in the UAE so that the disease can be caught early enough for treatment with a high chance of success.
"We are absolutely passionate in bringing this to the women of the Emirates," says O'Brien. "Education and awareness are the keys to it."
Both are worth bearing in mind this month.
The mobile mammogram screening unit will be at Khalidyah Mall in Abu Dhabi this Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am-10pm. To book an appointment, call 050 106 9713. Screening is open to any Emirati woman and non-Emiratis with an Abu Dhabi residence visa.
Free screening will be available to female residents aged 40 or over at BurJuman this Friday, October 22. Register at www.safeandsound.ae or pick up a form from the BurJuman centre (04 352 0222).
The Breast Care Centre at Tawam Hospital offers screening Sunday-Thursday from 8am to 4.30pm. To make an appointment, call 03 707 4229
(Proof of residency is required at all screenings and registrations)