Imagine a country where women don’t have mammograms, are reluctant even to examine their own breasts, for fear of what they might discover. Where women are afraid their husbands will leave them if they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. Where the stigma extends even to the daughters of women with breast cancer, who may be considered unmarriageable. This is the current social landscape in the Mideast.
It’s also eerily reminiscent of where America was, as a society dealing with breast cancer, 25 years ago. And that’s a point First Lady Laura Bush is making on her current trip to the Mideast, a trip focused on increasing awareness of breast cancer in the region, and thus improving women’s lives.
Bush has visited the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and will also stop in Kuwait and Jordan during her 6-day trip. Some in the media have looked skeptically at the timing of the trip, coming as it does just prior to next month’s Mideast peace conference. Indeed, Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s chief of staff, noted that “Obviously, this is a diplomatic effort and a diplomatic trip… So although they are not linked, certainly the timing is probably very good.” And maybe that’s true. But that doesn’t detract from what we all hope the first lady will accomplish: helping women in the Mideast fight breast cancer.
Eighty percent of American women diagnosed with breast cancer catch it early, in stage 1 or 2. Seventy percent of Middle Eastern women–SEVENTY percent–aren’t diagnosed till their disease is stage 3 or 4, when it’s much, much more difficult to treat and cure. In addition, Middle Eastern women on average get breast cancer 10 years earlier than their Western counterparts, when it’s inherently more deadly.
Part of this is lack of medical research. Despite the region’s incredible wealth–the four countries Mrs. Bush is visiting brought in $260 billion in oil revenue alone last year–the research dollars devoted to breast cancer remain scanty. One of Mrs. Bush’s missions during her trip is to promote the U.S. Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research, organized by the State Department and including representatives from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The partnership, formed last year, will support breast cancer research and community outreach efforts.
But an even greater challenge is the reaction of these societies to women’s health issues. In the UAE, where Mrs. Bush started her trip, posters promoting breast cancer awareness show two fingers artfully concealing the “r” and “s” in “breast,” so that the phrase “breast cancer” becomes “beat cancer”–the word “breast” isn’t allowed in public. A striking photograph of Mrs. Bush in Abu Dhabi, visiting a tent where women can get information about breast cancer, shows her sitting between two women clad head to foot in black, with only their eyes showing. In a culture where it’s taboo for a woman to appear in public without covering every part of her body, how difficult it must be to speak publicly about breast cancer, involving as it does something so physically intimate and private. Yet, considering that breast cancer is the number-one killer of women in the UAE, it’s an issue that must be faced.
And there appears to be a growing groundswell of young Middle Eastern women willing to take on their society’s cultural taboos. “Good Morning, America” host Robin Roberts, currently undergoing breast cancer treatment herself (she’s about a month into chemo), is accompanying Mrs. Bush on her trip. Roberts interviewed several young women in the UAE, including survivor Adila Nasser, who said, "The people around me, my society, don't tell anybody you've got cancer, you mustn't tell people, it's shameful."
But, Nasser added, survivors like herself are speaking out for change. "I thought, I need to come out with this, I need to speak about it, I need to let other women be aware that this is around, and if they detect it early they will go on to live healthy lives," she said. "We don't live in the dark ages anymore here, it's advancing forward. Women are coming out of their shells," Nasser added.
Mrs. Bush, whose mother and grandmother both survived breast cancer; who herself is 60 years old, a prime age for diagnosis; and who has twin daughters, obviously has a vested interest in this devastating disease. And now, because of her position, she’s been able to focus the world’s attention on breast cancer in the Middle East. Between Bush’s current overseas mission, its press coverage, and young women like Adila Nasser, we may begin to see progress in the fight against breast cancer in this region of the world–both cultural, and medical. Hopefully, it’ll mirror the progress we here in America have made over the past quarter-century.
Published On: October 23, 2007