Elissa shows breast cancer is not a death sentence

There might be a stigma around screening but women must take steps to preserve their health

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, Jan 15, 2015. Elissa performing in Dubai Shopping Festival Nights at Dubai Media City Ampitheatre. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National  *** Local Caption ***  RM_20150115_DSFNIGHTS_010.JPG

With more than three million views within a day of being posted on YouTube, a seven-minute music video could yet prove to be the most successful public health campaign ever seen in the Middle East. In the clip for the song Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni (To Those Who Love Me), released on Tuesday, the Lebanese singer Elissa revealed she was diagnosed with breast cancer late last year. Detected early, her tumour was treated successfully with radiotherapy. But the video's message – "early detection of breast cancer can save your life" – is now spreading across social media, thanks to Elissa's 33 million followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Around the world, breast cancer is the most common type of cancer affecting women. In the UAE, it is responsible for one in five of all deaths among women. Yet the subject remains widely taboo and as a result, many fail to take advantage of screening programmes that can detect tumours sufficiently early to stop lives being needlessly cut short. The advice from Abu Dhabi's Department of Health is clear. Every woman over the age of 40 – or even younger if there is a family history of the disease – should have a mammogram carried out every two years. Women should also carry out regular self-examinations to look for unusual lumps or other signs of change. Statistics from World Cancer Research Fund International spell out the risks of failing to check regularly for breast cancer. The survival rate after treatment for early stage breast cancer is between 80 and 90 per cent but if therapy is delayed until the cancer has reached a more advanced stage, the chance of surviving falls to 24 per cent.

Research has shown that Muslim women in particular might be reluctant to undergo screening, for reasons ranging from concerns about maintaining modesty to the fatalistic belief that death, if it comes earlier than expected, is inevitable. The UAE has taken steps to preserve cultural traditions and only female radiographers carry out mammograms. As the experience of one of the biggest-selling artists in the Middle East demonstrates, when it comes to breast cancer, women can and must take control of their own destinies.