International breast cancer awareness month represents an issue of special concern to Saudi Arabia, a country which sees more than 8,000 women diagnosed with the disease each year and in which breast cancer accounts for 24 percent of all cancer cases, according to the Saudi cancer registry at King Faisal specialist hospital and research center.
The cancer occurs as a result of mutations, or abnormal changes, in the genes responsible for regulating the health of body cells, according to specialists.
“The normal behavior of cells is to stay where they belong and only divide if and when they need to,” however if the genes become faulty, cells can reproduce unchecked and form a tumor, when this occurs in the breast tissue it leads to breast cancer, explains Dr. Wafa Nichols, a breast cancer research specialist at Jeddah’s center of excellence in genomic medicine research at King Abdul Aziz university.
Nichols said women should regularly look for warning signs which include changes to “skin texture and shape, lumps and redness,” and that such indicators should be reported to a doctor.
The main problem in Saudi Arabia is that the disease is not caught in time. About 50 to 60 percent of cases are detected at an advanced stage which limits the effectiveness of all known treatments, according to a report in Arab News newspaper.
Dr. Taher Twegieri, breast cancer expert at King Faisal hospital and research center, said the treatment of breast cancer depends on the specific patient and the stage at which their cancer is diagnosed.
Treatment options include the surgical route if the tumor is localized, as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy for select patients.
Twegieri added that “hormonal therapy is for those who have a hormonal responsive tumor” and that these distinct tumors grow as a result of the estrogen hormone present in women. The tumor is therefore targeted by reducing the patient’s levels of estrogen, according to this particular remedy.
Palliative care, which aims to relieve the suffering of patients, is administered throughout the patient’s experience with cancer.
Diagnostic laboratories are now able to conduct tests that help doctors decide which treatment will work better with which patient, added Dr. Nichols of King Abdul Aziz University.
The Kingdom is well-endowed with the medical resources needed for such treatments, with the necessary equipment and doctors at hand.
However, the subject of breast cancer remains a taboo, leading many women to suffer in silence.
The desire to sweep the issue under the rug has dissuaded many women in Saudi Arabia from seeking early detection.
“This is why we have late stage presentation and poor outcomes,” said Dr. Twegieri of Saudi’s King Faisal hospital.
Yahya Hamidaddin, managing director of the Adalid public relations company which handles media campaigns for Saudi’s Zahra breast cancer association, told Al Arabiya English that women are slowly but surely breaking the silence: there are “pioneer women who have suffered from this disease and were brave enough to discuss it in public and spread awareness.”
The association staged a major campaign in May of this year, entitled “A Woman's Journey: Destination Mount Everest.” The event saw 10 Saudi women climb to the mountain’s base camp to raise the profile of this disease.
“We had a mix of positive and negative responses from both genders, (however) our campaign created a public debate” Hamidaddin said.
Through such events local organizations wish to alert Saudi society to the dangers of ignoring breast cancer.
This is especially important amongst Saudi’s youth as 30 percent of breast cancer cases in the Kingdom occur in women under the age of 40, compared with five percent in the United States, according to Ms. Magazine online.
Twegieri noted the strange phenomena; “we have younger patients than the West has.” The reasons are unclear, he added.
Men’s breast cancer
A small percentage of men have also been known to suffer from breast cancer, “this wasn't known for the general public,” said Hamidaddin. He said part of the campaign was to raise awareness of breast cancer in men.
This year’s breast cancer awareness month is a chance for women, and
men, in Saudi Arabia to understand the disease and raise its profile, a measure which could save lives, he said.