For generations, cancer was never openly talked about. Even 30 years ago, when I was in medical school in Dublin, I wasn't allowed to use the "C-word" with a patient. Likewise today, in my superstitious corner of the Arab world, you would never say the words "breast cancer." Because if you said it, you would surely get it.
After graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons in the late 1980s, I returned home to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to work in a government hospital. It was there, as a young intern, that I came face-to-face with women with advanced breast cancer, the likes of which I'd only ever seen in surgical textbooks of generations gone. It truly horrified me that a woman would let her disease progress to such an advanced state before seeking help. There were many reasons for this: a lack of awareness; a deep abiding fear as to what others might think; and for the most part -- modesty. These women did not want to expose their breasts to a male surgeon. It was these women, and in many cases their sad demise, that impelled me to specialize in the surgical treatment of breast cancer.
Once again I packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and off I went to the United Kingdom to train as a breast surgeon. After eight long years, I returned home, only to discover the need for breast cancer awareness, prevention and treatment to be even greater than when I'd left. I couldn't get the word "breast" put on my medical license (as in "Breast Surgeon"), as it's not a polite word in Arabic, and I even had some breast cancer educational materials confiscated by the post office as "indecent."
Breast cancer continues to be a major cause of morbidity and mortality throughout the world accounting for 1-in-4 of all cancers in women worldwide. We also know the more developed a country becomes, the more breast cancer we see. This is especially so in the Arabian Gulf and its pattern is particularly disturbing. In the West, 80 percent of breast cancers occur in women over the age of 50, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Indian Subcontinent, it's at least a decade younger.
The reasons for this are not clear but the implications are these are our young women in their homes, perhaps with a young family; or in the work place, possibly in the peak of their careers when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. As a breast surgeon, these are the young women I see in my clinic every day -- our country's future.
Apart from my work as a breast surgeon, I clearly needed to raise the national consciousness about this disease. So, I started an awareness and education program which I ran in schools and colleges, ladies' clubs and in the work place. I produced (decent) educational videos, in several regional languages, which are for free distribution. All these efforts are to empower women with knowledge about their body and their health so they feel confident enough to go to a specialist if they ever find something wrong.
I also tried to create a real shift in the corporate culture here in the UAE when it comes to breast cancer, encouraging employers to provide their employees with healthcare benefits that include mammographic screening and to help their employees with breast cancer, who are on a very long and difficult treatment path, by being understanding and flexible and not firing them because they are sick.
Until a few years ago, cancer treatment was free at government hospitals for all legal residents of the UAE. This is not the case in Dubai and compulsory health insurance will not be fully implemented until the summer of 2016.
To address some of these local issues, I founded a charity called Brest Friends, whose mission is to save lives by increasing awareness of breast cancer and to offer support for breast cancer patients by removing such barriers as limited or no health insurance, lack of transportation and childcare, or language and cultural differences. For the last 10 years, we have run the only breast cancer support group in Dubai where survivors meet once a month to learn, socialize and relax together and sometimes just to talk and eat chocolate.
And to complete the circle, Brest Friends recently partnered with the Al Jalila Foundation, a non-governmental organization established by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. Our joint mission is to promote early detection of breast cancer, facilitate medical treatment and, most importantly, set up and fund locally-based research into the epidemiology of breast cancer in our region.
Paradoxically, breast cancer has an inspirational side. This grassroots fight against the disease has taught me it can be combated, it is not always fatal, and that early detection and good medical care surely make a difference. I can honestly say that today I don't see as many advanced cases as I did as a young intern. Local women will come to me now and when I ask "what's the problem" -- they'll say, "Nothing, I just want to be checked."
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the one hundred, in conjunction with the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Each year, the one hundred honors 100 Everyday Amazing individuals and groups -- caregivers, researchers, philanthropists, advocates and volunteers from around the globe -- who are celebrating hope and inspiring action in the cancer community. To see all other posts in the series, read here. For more information about the one hundred, read here. Do you know someone who's making a difference in the fight against cancer? Read here to nominate them for the one hundred.