Men urged to fight breast cancer

Health experts say Arab women must escape stigma.

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DUBAI // Breast cancer is among the biggest killers of women in the country, but health officials are focusing on Arab men to help lower the toll of the disease.

Misinformation about the illness and fears of being rejected by their spouses stop some women going for screenings - and receiving early treatment if cancer is diagnosed.

During Breast Cancer Awareness month, health professionals are calling on the support and understanding of Arab men to help educate the populace.

"There have been females who refused to go to screenings because they worried about being divorced or deserted," said Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, the manager of the non-communicable diseases department at Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad).

"One lady who was engaged ended up separating from her fiance because of this diagnosis. Another's husband divorced her after a long marriage."

Both men perceived cancer as something that could be transmitted to them, like an infection, Dr Al Hajeri said. So Arab women diagnosed with it can be stigmatised.

She added that if the situation were reversed, women would be criticised for not staying with their husbands if they were to become ill.

"Females need to know they have the right to support," Dr Al Hajeri said. "It's unfair for a lady to be penalised for this."

Last year 170 women and two men, a mixture of nationals and expatriates, had cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Abu Dhabi.

The number of patients who died from breast cancer in 2008 and 2009 was about 40, said Dr Jalaa Taher, the section head for cancer control and prevention at Haad.

The difference between an early and late diagnosis was vast, Dr Taher said.

"If you have been diagnosed early, the chance of survival and cure is 98 per cent, she said. "But at stage three or four, the advanced stages, the chances are very low."

In 2008, 64 per cent of patients were already in advanced stages before receiving the diagnosis. Last year, the number dropped to 36 per cent due to an increase in public awareness, the doctors said.

Getting in touch with the Arab male community was the obvious next step in the fight against breast cancer, said Carrie McNeill, the founder of the charity event Pink Polo, which is supported by Haad.

The second annual event, on October 29 at the Royal Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club, aims to educate people in a fun way.

"In this part of the world men encourage women to take action, so it is very important that the men are educated and support" the cause, Ms McNeill said. "We are addressing the taboo subject."

While the number of people visiting hospital at an earlier stage had increased, the number of deaths caused by the disease should be much lower, said Dr Taher.

"We recommend that women aged between 20 and 34 check themselves and go to the doctor every three years. Those aged 40-plus should have a mammogram every two years."

And although obesity, which is on the rise in the Emirates, was a contributing factor in breast cancer, the number of women receiving a diagnosis was still lower than in the rest of the world, Dr Taher said.

For women, especially Arabs, some aspects of their culture can have a positive effect.

"Having kids early [can help]," Dr Taher said. "There is a risk factor in having a baby late."

Breastfeeding for as long as possible was also to be encouraged, the doctors added.