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What women in the Arab world should know about breast cancer

As Breast Cancer Awareness month is coming to an end, Al Arabiya News is sharing five things women should know about the disease

Rajia Aboulkheir

Published: Updated:

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a worldwide annual campaign aimed at highlighting the importance of breast awareness, education and research, particularly that the disease is the most common cancer among women aged 20–59 years old.

As Breast Cancer Awareness month is coming to an end, Al Arabiya News is sharing five things women should know about the disease.

Mammography

Breast cancer cases and mortality rates are increasing in the Arab world, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and so highlights why mammography is important for women in the region.

Breast cancer screening, or mammography, is the process of checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before she has any symptoms.

“Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer at an early stage and that is why our Arab societies must educate women regarding the process,” Michel Saade, a cancer specialist and an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, told Al Arabiya News.

“Media outlets have an important role in guiding women especially the uneducated ones,” Saade added.

Women who are in the 50 to 74-years-old age bracket should have a screening mammogram every two years, because they are the most at risk of the cancer.

Signs of breast cancer

Some breast cancers are not found through mammograms, therefore it is important for Arab women to remain vigilant.

“Even though 95 percent of cancers are detected through mammography, five percent of other breast cancers are not found through the process,” Dr Hervé Marsaud, a French gynecologist and obstetrician, told Al Arabiya News.

“Women must remain vigilant and sometimes they may even have to undergo extra tests to ensure they are not carrying the disease,” he added.

Here are some alarming symptoms that could mean women have breast cancer:

- Nipple retraction (turning inward)
- Breast or nipple pain
- Redness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
- Breast lumps in general
- A change in the size, shape of a breast
- A swelling or lump in your armpit

The four different stages

There are four stages of breast cancer, which are defined by the prevalence and size of lymph nodes and tumors in the breast.

Infographic: Breast cancer stages
Infographic: Breast cancer stages

A study conducted by Qatar-based researchers found that when the cancer is first discovered, Arab women are believed to have a more advanced stage of the disease with larger tumors.

Explaining the claims, Marssaud, said: “It is due to a cultural issue in the Middle East and the lack of mammographies.”

“In Europe, there is less discomfort with the process unlike the Arab world where women are not familiar with the procedure.”

At Stage 0 and 1: the cancer cells are confined to a very limited area. If the cancer is detected at that time, the chances of survival are between 95 and 100 per cent.

Stage 2: Breast cancer is still in the earlier stages, but there is evidence that the cancer has begun to grow or spread.

Stage 3: The cancer is considered advanced cancer with evidence of cancer invading surrounding tissues near the breast.

Stage 4 breast cancer indicates that cancer has spread beyond the breast to other areas of the body.

Breast cancer and risk factors

While the real reason behind breast cancer is still not known, it is recognized that certain risk factors, both genetic and environmental, are linked to the disease.

Genetic factors

Gender: Breast cancer is more common in women than in men. (About 2,350 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed. About 440 men will die from breast cancer.)

Age: the risk of getting the disease increases with age.

Genetic risk factors: Inherited changes in certain genes can increase the risk of having breast cancer.

Personal history of breast cancer: A woman with cancer in one breast has a greater chance of getting another breast cancer.
Certain benign (not cancer) breast problems: Women who have certain benign breast changes may have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Menstrual periods: Women who began having periods early (before age 12) or who went through menopause after the age of 55 have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.

Treatment with DES: Women who were given the drug DES (diethylstilbestrol) during pregnancy have a slightly increased risk of getting breast cancer.

Environmental factors

Other factors, known as environmental factors, can also signal the beginning of a breast cancer.

Lack of physical activity: A lifestyle that includes little physical activity can increase your risk of breast cancer.

Poor diet: A diet high in fat and lacking fruits and vegetables can increase your risk for breast cancer.

Drinking alcohol: Frequent consumption of alcohol can increase your risk for breast cancer.

Other factors seem to be helping women living in Arab societies in reducing their chances of getting breast cancer.

“In the Arab world, women tend to get married at an early age and get pregnant quickly in comparison to the Western world,” Saade said explaining that early pregnancies help to diminish the chances of getting breast cancer.

Saade added that due to economic reasons “many women in Arab societies don’t use contraceptive pills which again lower the risk of getting breast cancer.”

Saudi Arabia has the lowest breast cancer rate in the Arab world

Saudi Arabia has the lowest rate of breast cancer in the Arab world with a total of 1,473 confirmed patients, according to the Saudi Gazette.

The nationwide average of incidence is 22 patients for every 100,000 women, the news website reported.

According to the Saudi Ministry of Health, breast cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in Saudi women, is usually found in women above the age of 52. It represents 24 percent of all cancer cases in the Kingdom.

Commenting on the figures, Saade, said: “Saudi has good health infrastructures and distinctive doctors.”

“It also has high-level scientific institutions that is probably helping in educating women against the disease.”