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Sheeffah Shiraz

It's time to talk breast cancer in Saudi Arabia

File Photo: Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for Saudi women [10KSA]

Date of publication: 15 December, 2015

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Feature: As the most common cancer in women in Saudi Arabia, many are determined to launch a mainstream conversation about breast cancer to help raise awareness.
"It never crossed my mind that I would be a victim of breast cancer," begins Omaymah al-Tamimi, a clinical psychologist and writer.

The mother-of-two from Saudi Arabia was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in February 2012 and, following treatment, is now in remission with check ups every six months. 

Omaymah's diagnosis is just one of many in Saudi Arabia, where breast cancer is the single leading cause of cancer death for women.

But yet, the disease is still a taboo topic of conversation in the conservative country.

"Society at large is private when it comes to the health issue," explains Dr Modia Batterjee from Riyadh.

"Due to cultural barriers, discussing cancer is not a subject most are comfortable with.

"Only in recent years have advocates been able to use the term 'breast cancer' as opposed to having to use the word 'disease' when discussing the illness," Dr Modia adds.

Only in recent years have advocates been able to use the term 'breast cancer' as opposed to having to use the word 'disease' when discussing the illness
- Dr Modia Batterjee
Starting the conversation  

In hopes of creating a mainstream conversation about the cancer, Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud launched the 10KSA initiative.

The campaign saw tens of thousands of women come together at the Princess Nourah University in Riyadh on Saturday to break the Guinness World Record for the largest human cancer awareness ribbon - in hopes it would attract attention to the cause.

"We are experiencing a dramatic trend of late stage diagnosis of breast cancer," explained Princess Reema during the campaign launch.

"So much so, that we have a lower survival rate and are diagnosed 10 years earlier than our Western counterparts."

Although Saudi Arabia boasts state of the art medical facilities and a government-funded universal healthcare programme for its citizens, the country still has one of the highest rates of morbidity in breast cancer. 

The absence of a standard nationwide breast-screening programme in the country and the low uptake of screening means that up to 70 percent of cases are detected in the late stages.

Furthermore, the overall survival rate is lower in comparison with the United States and the United Kingdom.

There is also evidence that the average occurrence of breast cancer in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, is about 10 years younger than in the US and European countries.

These shockingly steep figures stem from a lack of awareness and a cultural understanding.

Cultural barriers

"Stigma is the main reason behind the lack of awareness," said Dr Modia, also an ambassador for the 10KSA event.

"On many occasions I have been approached by women telling me they do not want their girls to learn how to touch themselves," she explains.

Omaymah agrees.

"Our culture restricts women from having a more aware relationship with their bodies, so they wouldn't know how their breasts would feel prior to the presence of a prominent lump."

It is for this reason Dr Modia decided to turn to breastfeeding, seen as a more "accepted reason" for women to handle their own breasts.

She hoped that through this, women would be able to notice anything strange, without feeling inappropriate.

"Understanding your body and its changes is very important in combating this disease," Dr Modia said, adding that early detection was key to avoiding the poor prognosis that comes when a diagnosis is only made later.

Our culture restricts women from having a more aware relationship with their bodies, so they wouldn't know how their breasts would feel prior to the presence of a prominent lump
- Omaymah al-Tamimi, breast cancer survivor 
Powerful, not powerless

"We must speak about breast cancer, inform women how to examine themselves and encourage men to support their partners to get regular check ups and breastfeed as preventative measures," urged Dr Modia.

To eradicate the stigma associated with cancer, Omaymah believes it is vital to start raising awareness at schools from an early age.

"I want women to be aware of their breasts even at a young age. There are cases where women are only 16, without any family history of the disease, yet are still diagnosed. No one is immune," she added.

Omaymah is also determined to share her own experience of her diagnosis, which she described as her "wake-up call" to support her fellow Saudi women.

"Instead of breaking down, I used the experience to develop a more positive outlook on life. I'm grateful for this, as it did not make me powerless, but powerful beyond measure," Omaymah said.

She wrote a book in Arabic, Riyadh-London: Something in my Chest, to "enlighten, educate and uplift". She has also become a spokeswoman for the cause.

"I wanted to help raise awareness and make a difference to Saudi women's lives, with the hope of inspiring more women to talk about their experiences with breast cancer," Omaymah explains.

She also says that to try and increase the numbers of diagnoses made early enough for intervention, more women need to speak up and discuss their experiences.

"I am a breast cancer survivor and my approach to life is now uplifting and inspiring," Omaymah said.

"Breast cancer is not a death sentence, rather it can be a life sentence if discovered early."

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