Minister takes the lead in saving lives

Prominent politician was first woman to have a mammogram using new digital equipment donated to Sharjah's Mother and Chile centre.

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ABU DHABI // Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi got the call while on government business in South Korea last June: her close American friend Linda's breast cancer had worsened dramatically and she had little time left to live. The news left the Minister of Foreign Trade facing an agonising dilemma. She had been planning to travel to California to see Linda anyway. Should she cancel her government work and fly there immediately?

What followed, Sheikha Lubna said, was the "most horrifying experience" of her life, but one that she believes has made her stronger and better able to lead the fight against the disease in the UAE. "I got back to the Middle East and I had a joint economic committee with one of the Arab countries. And I thought that's it. I'll finish and the next day I will fly to California. I believed that she would survive it. There's always that feeling that because she's a friend she is going to survive.

"That morning just before walking to my meeting I got a call saying she had passed away. I sat in that meeting and I hated myself because I was thinking: where have I put my priorities? "My work was very important but death is not something you gamble with by saying I will defeat it and stay another day. You don't. And to me that was the most horrifying experience I've ever gone through. "In my mind I was thinking it's just one more day, but what is one more day to you versus a day to death?

"It was hard. But I came out of this experience much stronger. It built strength in me not to fear something like this but to talk it through. Fate is not in our hands. You have to accept it." Sheikha Lubna had met her "big sister" Linda, an American schoolteacher seven years her senior, while she was studying computer science at California State University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I was coming from a very sheltered environment here. My brothers were there but they were boys, having access to girlfriends and social life. I met Linda through one of my classmates.

"She was a bubbly girl, really fun and we all liked her. We would go to the Sunday farmers' markets or pick up a picnic and go to the mountains. We would cook together at my place or at her mum's house. "So it was more like what I felt at home in the UAE. Linda came to stay with my family in Sharjah and if my sisters wanted to travel to California they would stay with her. They were like extended family to us and Linda was like a big sister to me."

The close friends stayed in touch for two decades. Then, one day Linda called with the devastating news she had breast cancer. Worse, the disease had been discovered late because Linda had skipped her annual mammogram one year. Over the next three years, Sheikha Lubna would spend summer holidays sitting and talking with Linda, an only child whose mother died a year after Linda discovered she had cancer.

"I feel sometimes people get horrified when they have a friend who has cancer. They get scared and they don't know how to talk to them or what to say. What the friends need is just pure love and support. You don't hold miracles but you need to restate your commitment to them as someone who is there enjoying time with them. "I remember getting up early with Linda and she had a nice garden and we would have breakfast there. She was so grateful that I could come because I was a close sister. Although I was younger than her I was the only one who could make decisions for her. I would insist that she did things. I felt strength.

"Sometimes even close family members don't know how to give strength to this person who is going through so much pain and desperation that all they need is someone to be their decision maker. You have to go into their soul and just hold them. "I've become strong because of the dialogue I've had with Linda." Sheikha Lubna attended Linda's funeral in California. She also campaigns for the Sharjah-based cancer charity Friends of Cancer Patients, which raises awareness in the UAE about the importance of detecting cancer early.

In Nov 2006, she was the first woman to have a mammogram using a new digital imaging machine donated to Sharjah's Mother and Child Health Centre by General Electric. And last year, she agreed to lend her name to Mukhalat Sheikha Lubna, a new perfume launched by a young female Emirati entrepreneur - but only if 20 per cent of sales were donated to Friends of Cancer Patients. "I am accessible, I can communicate, I can express my opinion. I can be bold enough to say I did my mammogram publicly. It's very unusual here to have a woman of status do something like that.

"But this work is really important. The advancement of technology means the screening procedures are a lot less painful. They are acceptable and they are normal. Awareness is crucial," she said. Despite her hectic schedule, she says she makes sure she has time for the campaign and to help people with cancer. "I ask women why they don't they help communities and support some of these charities and they say they are busy. I don't think there's anyone busier than I am. I'm a constant traveller. I need to balance what's important to my job, to my Government, to my family. But there's a part of me that is also very important too. And that part is when I sleep at night I know I am very close to other people.

"Being good in your heart for others is so important. You may not give a lot but when everybody gives it becomes a lot. It can be moral support, community work. "I had a friend, a young woman whose mother had terminal cancer. It was more important for me to sit with the daughter, a young woman, because she felt responsible for the situation. And who was giving her support? "Who is talking to her? It was about having her talk about what faith meant to her and expressing that if you feel grief you have go through it. You aren't there to give advice to them but to share in the experience they are going through.This is community work but it's also social responsibility.

"By being open, public and visible I make it possible for people to come and talk about their stories. Maybe they kept it to themselves too long and by seeing someone out there talking about cancer means they will talk about it too." You can find out more about Friends of Cancer Patients at