Donna Abu-Nasr, AP, October 24, 2007
One Saudi woman ignored the cancer growing in her breast because she didn’t want to risk a referral to a male doctor. Another was divorced by her husband on the mere suspicion she had the disease, while a third was dragged away from a mammogram machine because the technicians were men.
Breast cancer is still considered a taboo in oil-rich Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia even as the disease claims more and more victims, but some women are pushing for greater openness about the illness.
In Saudi Arabia, the issue is very serious. About 70 percent of breast cancer cases are not reported until they are at a very late stage, compared with 30 percent or less in the U.S., according to [gynecologist Samia] al-Amoudi.
She also said 30 percent of Saudi patients are under 40 years old, compared to 5 percent in the U.S.
Breast cancer is the No. 1 killer of women in the United Arab Emirates, according to official statistics, with many dying because the stigma surrounding the disease prevents them from seeking early detection.
Breast cancer awareness campaigns are becoming more prevalent in the Arab world. In Lebanon, for instance, a public service TV announcement shows two round, lit candles. One of them is extinguished as an announcer reads statistics about the disease and reminds women to do mammograms.
In Saudi Arabia, a campaign that began this month gives discounts for mammograms and, in billboards, urges women to “Do the test now, for peace of mind.”
The problem is not a matter of resources. The kingdom has some of the world’s best equipment and doctors and even the poor have access to free medical care.
The problem is in people’s mindsets. Many Saudis, like other Arabs, won’t even refer to cancer by name, calling it just “that disease” because of the fear surrounding it. Some families are afraid no one will marry their daughters if a mother’s illness becomes known.
For others, however, the greatest obstacle is the idea women being examined by male doctors.
Al-Amoudi, who chronicled her struggle with cancer in a local newspaper, recounted the story of a woman whose husband always pulls her away from the mammogram room because the technicians are male.
“The first thing women ask me when I tell them to get a mammogram is: ‘Will the radiologist be male or female?’” she said.