Breast Cancer in the UAE

Safe and Sound charity is raising breast cancer awareness

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While International Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn’t until October, the fight to raise awareness of the disease is ongoing here in the UAE. Breast cancer accounts for 13.7 per cent of all cancer deaths in women across the globe and is the most common cause of cancer in women in the UAE. Furthermore, studies have shown that women in the Gulf region are more likely to develop breast cancer at least a decade earlier than their counterparts in Western countries. In spite of its prevalence, it has taken the likes of Sabina Khanwani of breast cancer awareness charity Safe and Sound 14 years to purge much of the taboo surrounding the disease.

‘There [used to be] an attitude of: if I talk about it, it’ll happen to me,’ explains Sabina. ‘The “c” word was a taboo, but 14 years on there has been a visible change of attitude – acceptance is much, much higher, but I’m not saying we’ve reached top of the mountain, we haven’t.’

When she and sponsors BurJuman first took up the fight against breast cancer, Sabina found that different segments of UAE society responded very differently to the disease – Western expats tended to be more open to the idea of discussing the illness since they had been more exposed to breast cancer initiatives back in their home countries. The local community, meanwhile, was very reluctant. This, Sabina says, was due to lack of understanding, knowledge and certain superstitions associated with disease.

In order to change this attitude Sabina soon learnt that many women were uncomfortable about taking information in a clinical environment. The solution? Shopping. Or at least promoting the disease in comforting, non-threatening environments such as shopping malls, and thus providing a more reassuring, welcoming platform for women to take the message on board.

Sabina says that young people are becoming the real champions of raising awareness in the UAE. The better educated children are about the disease, the easier acceptance and awareness comes – a woman is more likely to respond to a family member encouraging them to book a mammogram than a doctor or a promotional poster.

‘Safe and Sound have been receiving more enquires from men,’ adds Sabina, ‘asking “what should I do for my wife; where should I take my wife for a check-up?” Traditionally breast cancer was a woman’s problem, but now it’s not a singular problem anymore, the family unit is involved. This in itself is a huge support scenario for a woman.’

But getting women to go to checkups is only half the battle – mammograms here can cost anything from Dhs300 to Dhs800. Considering the majority of women in the UAE comprise of expatriates on lower incomes – such as maids, nannies and waitresses – the tests are all but unaffordable. As such, Safe and Sound have set up a free mammogram initiative. However, Sabina can’t emphasise enough that education is the key to prevention, and is something that everybody – man, woman and child – can participate in: ‘We’ve asked people who have nannies, maids, and drivers to help educate them – the education process goes from person to person. So every company should take responsibility to advise and educate their staff. We provide lectures for companies and doctor visits – it’s not a difficult scenario at all.’

So how do we get involved? The numerous fundraising and awareness initiatives are listed on Safe and Sound’s website, and while the big push will come in October, there is currently an ongoing book collection at BurJuman shopping centre. Proceeds from the consequent book sale will go to funding the mammograms and other initiatives. As Sabina says, breast cancer is not just a disease that afflicts women, it’s a disease that afflicts families and communities. The fight against it should be community-led – the more involved, the better.
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