The average age for Emirati women to be diagnosed with breast cancer is between 40 and 45 – 10 years younger than in Europe, according to local experts. Not only that, but several women – or rather, girls – as young as 17 have recently been diagnosed. The first question that springs to mind is: why? What’s so different about life in the UAE? ‘Perhaps women from the Gulf are genetically more prone to a certain aggressive type of cancer which comes at a much younger age,’ suggests Dr Houriya Kazim, a specialist breast surgeon with the Well Woman Clinic in Satwa and founder of support group Brest Friends (www.brestfriends.org). ‘The aggressive types of cancer strike women here when they’re younger – but nobody knows why.’
It is not only local women who are suffering at a younger age. ‘When I was in the West, 80 per cent of breast cancers were suffered by people over the age of 50. Here it’s at least 10 years younger,’ Dr Houriya explains. ‘For a while, I thought: A lot of young people come to Dubai to work and will be around that age anyway. But then I realised that it really does affect young women of all nationalities here. And when you look at other countries like Egypt and Iran, that have a more normal demography; they see a similar pattern of breast cancer in younger women too.’
If it can’t be put down to the genes then an obvious potential factor is lifestyle: it has been suggested that people get less exercise here than they would in their home countries, eat poorer diets and suffer higher levels of stress. ‘One of the things I see when a country develops is that their diets include much more saturated fat,’ explains Dr Houriya. ‘You’re supposed to eat less saturated fat, cut out fast food and include more wholegrain foods in your diet.’ There are other lifestyle rules that researchers recommend women adopt to lower chances of suffering the disease that many may not have heard of. These include breast-feeding kids, avoiding taking hormones, and having children at a relatively young age. ‘But if you do these things it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get breast cancer,’ Dr Houriya warns. ‘Because I do get people who say to me, “I breastfed my kids so I don’t have to worry about it,” which is, unfortunately, not the case.’
Research has also revealed that most younger sufferers are only caught at a later stage – a factor which some have suggested is down to both a lack of education and lingering social stigma surrounding the disease. ‘With a lot of my local patients the stigma is still there,’ says Dr Houriya. ‘The patients may want to come out and talk about their cancer but their families don’t want them to. If you have diabetes it’s OK, people don’t mind if you tell the neighbours you’ve got sugar. But if you say you have breast cancer, somehow it is bad.’
Christine Gabriel, a 52-year-old from Chicago, has been struck by breast cancer three times in her life – firstly when she was just 29 back in the ’80s. ‘I was devastated,’ Christine recalls. ‘That was when women being diagnosed before the age of 40 was considered weird and rare.’ Christine has some theories on why younger women are being hit with the disease internationally. ‘Perhaps more women know how to do self-examinations. Or we’ve got better diagnostic testing, or maybe there’s something different in the environment. Whatever it is – the percentage is increasing.’
A Dubai resident for the past four years, Christine is now recovering from colon cancer. ‘I was always very athletic. I ride horses, I sail. I am very, very active. Now I eat more soup and vegetables than I ever have done in my life,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t a great eater at 29. I wouldn’t say I was a healthy eater before then – but I was a person who ate to live, rather than lived to eat.’ However, if Christine had to choose one piece of advice to give to other women looking to minimise their chances of cancer, she would tell them to de-stress. ’I really think stress has a big role in causing cancer. When we get stressed out we overuse our immune system, so we’re not strong enough to fight cancer off,’ she says. ‘Of course it’s impossible to completely avoid stress at all times. But take control of your life wherever possible. Because you can’t take control with cancer – it controls you. So just try as best you can to live a happy and stress-free life.’
Go to brestfriends.org to see their award-winning video about what to do if you discover a lump on your chest, as well as information on Dr Houriya’s support group for breast cancer sufferers and survivors.
• A lump or thickening in an area of the breast – although nine out of 10 lumps are benign, you should check for them once a month. For women, particularly over 35, this means before your period.
• A change in the size or shape of a breast.
• Dimpling of the skin.
• A change in the shape of your nipple, particularly if it turns in, sinks into the breast, or becomes irregular in shape.
• A blood-stained discharge from the nipple.
• A rash on a nipple or surrounding area.
• A swelling or lump in your armpit.
• In more rare strands of the disease you may suffer redness, inflammation, soreness, hardness and enlarged pores.
Breast cancer month
The UAE’s support of breast cancer awareness has increased tremendously over the past few years. Here are a few of the things happening during October, the official breast cancer month, and onwards.
• Do the Safe and Sound Breast cancer awareness campaign’s 3.6km Pink Walkathon on October 30 at 8am and visit the Pink Bazaar afterwards. Also, see the Breast Cancer Survivor Fashion Show on October 9 and check safeandsound.ae for information on more events, the condition itself, and to join their online pink ribbon campaign.
• Look at the Fairmont Dubai’s lights. They’ll be shining pink until October 10 to mark their participation in the annual Estée Lauder’s Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, a global event that plans to illuminate 200 global landmarks in pink lights, including The Empire State, the Taj Mahal and the Tower of London. Also, look out for other Dubai buildings blushing pink.
• Go to Synergy Centre (04 348 5452; www.synergyctrdubai.com). They’re putting on a wide range of cancer support activities during October, including free consultations and workshops.
• Buy butterfly pendants and bracelets designed for breast cancer month at www.desertdiamondsco.com (050 659 9189), from Dhs240.
• Grab a cute notebook kitted out by local designers to reflect the plight of women who’ve survived breast cancer. Available from 50°C (04 420 0414; Souk Al Bahar), Dhs45.
• Get a makeover during October at Darrin James photography (The Palm Jumeirah; 04 368 6355) and 15 per cent of your money will go to Brest Friends.
• Eat a scrummy cupcake at Sugar Daddy’s Village Mall (04 344 8204). Fifty per cent of the price of every cupcake sold will go to the King Hussein Cancer Foundation in Jordan.