In recent years, Hollywood star Angelina Jolie has shown a soft spot for Asia and the Middle East.
After visits to Syrian refugees in Jordan and girls’ schools in Afghanistan, she has won over global attention for her humanitarian work in the region.
News of her decision to undergo a double mastectomy, which she decided to reveal on Tuesday in a New York Times column, has been appreciated by women all over the world.
Health activists, doctors and Jolie’s fans hailed the actress for the decision to have her breasts removed to lower her risk of developing cancer.
“She’s the sweetheart of the Middle East,” Ghetal Muhummad, an Emirati health science student told Al Arabiya.
“She is brave and women across the Arab world should aspire to pay attention to their own health like Jolie has,” Muhummad added.
Jolie, respected for her humanitarian work overseas, said she was speaking out to help other women understand their options, and also to urge authorities to help women in lower-income countries receive the health care they need.
“I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness,” she stated.
Cancer in the Middle East
In light of Jolie's decision, Dubai-based breast cancer surgeon, Dr. Houriya Khazim, told Al Arabiya that women in the Arab world should avoid the taboo surrounding breast cancer and have themselves checked regularly.
But for women in the Middle East, a region seemingly dear to the actress, Jolie’s revelation may have been seen as “too brave” when region-specific and religious factors come into play.
The desire to sweep the issue under the rug has dissuaded many women in Saudi Arabia, for example, from seeking early detection.
“This is why we have late stage presentation and poor outcomes,” said Dr. Taher Twegieri of Saudi’s King Faisal hospital in an interview with Al Arabiya.
Many doctors have noted the superstition surrounding breast cancer as many people feel “if they talk about it, they will get it,” Khazim said to Al Arabiya.
In Saudi Arabia, the rate of breast cancer has climbed to 24 percent from 7.6 percent in the past 10 years, according to the Saudi Cancer Registry.
Reactions in the Middle East to Jolie’s news have varied, notes Yahya Hamidaddin, managing director of the Adalid public relations company which handles media campaigns for Saudi’s Zahra breast cancer association.
“Some people say she’s overdoing it, others says she is brave,” said Hamidaddin
But above all, Jolie’s move “communicates a serious issue,” he added. “Women not only need to get checkups, they need to react to the results. Take proactive action and don’t wait.”
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in Saudi women. It represents 24 percent of all cancer cases in the kingdom.
“We need to spread the message to our families and our friends, many girls are afraid if they hear the words breast cancer,” said Ghetal Muhummad.
“The cases of breast cancer are increasing with every generation, we must raise awareness,” she added.
The simple truth is the earlier a cancerous tumor is detected, the more likely the chance of recovery.
58-year-old Karina al-Muls, speaking to The National newspaper, agrees with Jolie’s decision and with the issue of spreading the message. Al-Muls was told two years ago that she had a 25 percent chance of developing breast cancer as she carried the BRCA1 gene, she says would have gone down the same route as the actress.
The mother of four had decided not to undergo a mastectomy but says if the results had been as high as Jolie’s, she would have.
“Since my mother died I have been to see many doctors, and some hadn’t even heard of the testing,” she told The National. “For me, I would do anything to keep around for my family as long as possible.”
But one problem in the Arab world is the lack of early genetic testing to spot cancer-causing genes.
The reasons behind this, however, may be down to the differences between the Middle East and the West when documenting cancer trends.
“Here [in the Middle East], the onset [of cancer] is much earlier, it affects women in the region at least five to 10 years earlier than elsewhere,” Dr. Ghazi Tadmouri, one of the region’s leading geneticists told The National.
Twegieri noted the strange phenomena; “we have younger patients than the West has.” The reasons are unclear, he added.
Another defining feature noted by many breast cancer specialists in the region is that “breast cancer in the Middle East presents in a much more aggressive manner than the same disease in different parts of the world, “ according to Khazim.
Nobody knows exactly why this occurs.
Khazim believes more locally based research should exist to answer the mystery. As it stands, research on breast cancer emanates solely from the Western world.
A choir of praise
Her partner and fellow actor Brad Pitt led a worldwide choir of praise, declaring her “heroic,” he was followed by her doctors, fellow stars and thousands of supporters, who took to social media to praise her openness.
“We hope that the awareness she is raising around the world will save countless lives,” Jolie’s surgeon Dr. Kristi Funk, of the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Los Angeles, wrote on a blog, praising her patient’s “bold choices.”
Jolie, one of the world’s highest-paid performers, said the cost of getting tested for BRCA1 and another faulty gene, called BRCA2, is more than $3,000 in the United States and that this “remains an obstacle for many women.”
“She’s very brave to speak out,” Katherine McLane, vice president for communications at Livestrong, the U.S.-based cancer charity told AFP news agency.
But McLane voiced hope that Jolie’s experience would also generate “more attention about affordable health care for all women.”