Breast cancer in Middle East a pink spotlight on the UAE

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The UAE is going pretty in pink this month. Although the color is usually seen as fun and girlish, it is also commonly associated with breast cancer awareness campaigns, an issue of serious concern for the Emirates.

The disease is the 2nd most common cause of death amongst women and the most common form of cancer in the country, according to the ministry of health.

In addition to raising the profile of the disease, “we need more voices on how cancer affects lives,” says Rania Amer, the organizer of Dubai’s Pure hearts job fair- the first organization in the UAE to reintegrate cancer patients into the work environment.

Breast cancer sufferers in the region tend to “isolate themselves,” they need support in their day to day lives, which is just as crucial as medical support, Amer adds.

The job fair, which took place this week, seeks to help cancer patients get back to their working lives.

Many cancer patients and survivors wish to lead a normal life. The opportunity to work allows these people to be active part of society, which in itself will help to raise awareness, Amer told Al Arabiya.

Interested businesses are invited to set up stalls and interview cancer patients, as well as cancer survivors, for a position in their company.

She went on to note the challenge faced by professional hopefuls with cancer; many companies have given a negative response to employing this demographic.

Questions of life insurance and the uncertain life expectancy of some cancer patients have dissuaded some potential employers from taking part in the job fair.

“People are skeptical about hiring cancer patients, there is the issue of medical costs and doubt about whether they can perform on a day-to-day basis,” said the director of one business in Dubai.

There are supporters in the business world, however.

This year “we are expecting 10 companies and 35 cancer survivors to participate,” in the job fair, Amer said.

Ibrahim al-Zubi, spokesperson of the Dubai-based business Majid Al Futtaim, told Al Arabiya, “we believe that anyone with the right skill set, regardless of their medical history, deserves an opportunity to join our team.”

When asked if cancer patients would be treated equally within the workforce, al-Zubi responded, “we work with all employees to ensure that they are able to put their best foot forward, which in some situations means allowing flexibility in working hours,” indicating that facilitating measures would be put in place to ensure cancer patients and survivors a smooth transition into the world of work.

Suha Mardelli, HR director at Bayt.com, one of the largest online recruitment agencies in the Middle East, said cancer patients should have the opportunity to work undeterred.

“We need to support cancer patients by allowing them to be part of the active community,” she said.

But Mardelli said “qualifications, experience and skills are paramount when making a hiring decision. When hiring cancer patients, the bar should be equivalent to all candidates.”

Cancer patients and survivors “are fighters by nature and are fighting one of the hardest battles of life,” she said, adding that “we need to believe in them, empower them and support them.”

Who is affected?

Breast cancer in the Middle East presents itself at a younger age and in a much more aggressive manner than the same disease in different parts of the world, according to Dubai-based breast cancer surgeon Dr. Houriya 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.

Men have also been known to be victims of breast cancer, a fact that is not common knowledge.

Experts say one percent of international breast cancer sufferers are men. But Dr. Khazim says she sees very few male cases in the Middle East.

“Male breast cancer typically develops in older men, the relative youth of the Gulf’s society could account for the lack of known cases” she said.


Many doctors have noted the superstition surrounding breast cancer as many people feel “if they talk about it, they will get it,” Dr. Khazim said.

One young Emirati woman, Ghetal Muhummad, said, “we need to spread the message to our families and our friends, many girls are afraid if they hear the words breast cancer.”

“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.

The Brest friends support network, initiated by Dr. Khazim herself, suggests women over the age of 20 should have a clinical breast exam every year, while women over the age of 45 should have a mammogram screening each year.

At home, women should regularly check for changes to shape and skin texture, as well as lumps and redness, the doctor said.

Breast cancer awareness month is taking off in the UAE, the pink-packed calendar is full of activities ranging from pink walk-a-thons to pink polo matches.

The aim is to raise awareness of the disease and promote the health of women in the country. Spreading the message and supporting breast cancer patients is seen as the first, crucial, step to beating breast cancer in the Emirates.