Breast cancer, once a taboo subject in many Saudi social settings, is now openly talked about thanks to years of awareness campaigns led by an organization bearing the name of a victim of the disease, Zahra.
As Breast Cancer Awareness month gets underway, campaigners in the Kingdom will be urging people to think pink, the internationally recognized symbol of October and a color adopted by the Zahra Breast Cancer Association in Saudi Arabia.
The association was one of the first bodies in the country dedicated to raising awareness about the disease and providing support to patients and survivors. And its mission is far from over, with more outreach programs and initiatives in the pipeline.
While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to follow the vital steps toward detecting the disease in its early stages, but the association is leading the fight to highlight the need for regular checks.
Known to be the most common cancer in women worldwide, it is the leading cause of death among Saudi women, according to a retrospective epidemiological study conducted in 2012.
The findings showed high-incidence rates occurring at an earlier age in Saudi women than in those in Western countries.
More than 25 years ago, Dr. Suad bin Amer, the head of breast cancer research at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, struggled to understand the disease which her mother, Zahra bint Ali bin Harfash, suffered from.
In order to comprehend her mom’s grave situation and treatment, that went on for several years, Amer went on a hunt for information and was able to answer the questions of her ailing mother, who succumbed to the disease years later.
Since early 2003, awareness workshops and seminars have been conducted in a number of institutions in Riyadh, and awareness campaigns run in shopping centers were later expanded throughout the Kingdom.
With a mission to provide a clearer understanding of the disease, support patients, and help them to live a pro-active life after recovery, Amer co-founded the Zahra Breast Cancer Association in 2007, named after her late mother.
In carrying out her awareness work, she took to heart the words of her mother who said: “Women must be made aware of this disease, must seek knowledge and information about it by themselves, and should undergo screening.”
With this message in mind Amer began her journey of spreading awareness in the Kingdom about the importance of early detection with a team of dedicated co-founders and members.
CEO and co-founder, Hanadi Al-Outhah, told Arab News that breast cancer awareness month would go ahead despite the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, using digital means to reach out to as many people as possible, even beyond Saudi borders.
“This year, we’re focusing on the four main pillars of thought, priorities, behavior, and gratitude toward health and how the events of the year were able to change the mindset of patients and survivors. We’re focusing on their growth and providing them with the support they need after recovery,” she said.
Al-Outhah added that the organization would be participation in the upcoming Civil20 (C20) event at which the importance of supporting cancer survivors, post-treatment, would be discussed.
“It’s an area that we are falling behind on in the Kingdom and regionally. It’s never been discussed before and the aim is to target the G20 countries and encourage them to support them after their treatment, while activating their roles as survivors after. The result would be more impactful as many NGOs are founded by survivors themselves,” she said.
Hala Aseel, a co-founder of the association and a mental-health counselor, said: “I, like everyone at the time, was oblivious to what breast cancer was but understood it with time as I am a daughter of a cancer survivor.
“I believed in the goal of Zahra because people needed to change their view of the disease with survivors who can live to tell the tale. With enough support they can, and they’ll find a wider support group that also includes survivors to help.”
Another co-founder and clinical psychologist, Ahlam Al-Shamsi, said: “We went from knocking on people’s doors to people knocking on ours. With the help of the Ministry of Health, this was achieved. With the help of Zahra, we aim at empowering women, survivors, to go out and advocate about the screening process and talk about their journeys.
“With support, we’ll be able to do more to help and ensure that patients and survivors receive proper moral and psychological support that will ensure their continued journey in life.”
Public acceptance and acknowledgement of the importance of screening has encouraged many and helped in generating a better understanding of the risk factors relevant to patients.
“One of the main goals now is to fill in a gap and calculate the impact measurement, to ensure that there are enough people to continue providing psychological and social support by training specialists in the Kingdom, support research projects and empower members of the medical field, and provide them with the needed education,” said Al-Shamsi.
Zahra’s plans for the future include establishing a constant presence at specialist hospitals with cancer treatment centers and recruit community figures to help bring a local flavor to initiatives.
Al-Outhah noted that support would continue to be needed from all levels.
Breast cancer survivor, Awatif Al-Hoshan, who is a member of the board and a Zahra ambassador, said women were often confused and found it daunting to inquire about the disease, sometimes fearing the worst.
“When cancer patients and survivors see other women come forward, it brings a sense of ease and comfort. Zahra ambassadors follow a simple and important therapeutic path, to lend a helping hand,” she said.
“It’s a scientific fact that early detection saves lives and we’ve come a long way as we’ve cooperated with many health organizations to try and complete the circle, health-wise, mentally, and physically.
“The support I had while getting treatment wasn’t what I needed. I understood that and learnt from the experience. I am now a proud Zahra ambassador helping out patients and creating a community of caregivers with hopes to expand and have more people join,” Al-Hoshan added.
The association’s mission is far from complete, but its outreach has expanded throughout the Kingdom, and participation in this year’s C20 will provide a platform for its message to be heard around the world.
“Working with various entities throughout the years has helped to spread awareness at unprecedented levels. But support is everything,” said Al-Outhah.