AL AIN // Interviews with breast cancer survivors have suggested that some women may be hiding their condition long after finding symptoms, fearing social prejudice or abandonment by their husbands.
A team including members from UAE University found some alarming misconceptions when interviewing 19 survivors, aged between 35 and 70, who sought treatment up to three years late.
“Initially we thought it’s just a matter of awareness and educating women would be enough,” said Dr Yusra Elobaid of the university’s Public Health Institute.
“The study reveals that there are many social and cultural issues. The most shocking thing in the results was how the community reacts.
“Most of the women I interviewed were afraid of the community and what the community will say. They didn’t want anyone to know they had cancer.”
Some patients were told by their families that their disease was “a punishment from God” and others had no support from their husbands, Dr Elobaid said.
Dr Urfan Ul Haq, consultant oncologist at Burjeel Hospital who was not involved in the interviews, said one patient hid her cancer for seven months.
The tumour grew and when her family asked why her skin smelt she said she had not bathed.
“There should be more positive stories about cancer survivors,” said Dr Ul Haq.
“Talk about stories where people get help. Let people know that diseases happen. In campaigns, cancers should not be treated as a stigma. It can happen to anyone.”
Patients are usually scared or in denial about the symptoms and say it is normal when they feel a lump.
“They don’t want to get tested because they’re scared it may turn out to be breast cancer,” said Dr Ul Haq.
He said that gynaecologists or female doctors should ask patients about symptoms.
Dr Ul Haq said that families became emotional when cancer was detected. “Their reactions vary and in some cases, I am told the husband isn’t interested and stops accompanying them to the clinic.”
While some of the women interviewed were unable to recognise symptoms of breast cancer, others were afraid of social stigma and some worried their husbands would abandon them if it were diagnosed.
“Culture has a strong influence on the decisions of women in the UAE society,” reported the team, who conducted the interviews in 2012 at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain.
Dr Elobaid said that health campaigns must also target husbands of patients.
“Efforts involving the whole family are required. Men are dominant and are decision makers in the community, and we need to target them. They have to learn how to support their wives.”
Dr Layla Al Awadhi, consultant in general surgery and breast surgery at Danat Al Emarat Hospital for Women and Children, believed it was uncommon for women to avoid seeking treatment because of cultural issues.
“We have noticed that the number of patients is increasing. Sometimes women have cancer that increases in an aggressive manner. When it’s small, the patient has not noticed it,” said Dr Al Awadhi.
“It’s not that they’re shy. They feel that they can’t go because they are scared that it might be breast cancer. These are the educated people.”
Some women believed the symptoms were pregnancy-related changes, she said.
But overall, Dr Al Awadhi believed that more cases of breast cancer were being detected early.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UAE, accounting for 43 per cent of cancers diagnosed in women and 25 per cent of all cancer cases. It is the second leading cause of death among women, according to the 2012 Cancer Registry Report.
The draft findings by the UAE University researchers in collaboration with international academics are titled Breast Cancer Presentation Delays among Arab and National Women in the UAE.
They were published this month on the website Population Health.