As every October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are reminded that breast cancer doesn’t just affect women.

That’s one of the main aims of the UAE’s Pink Caravan, to highlight and steer informative conversations about breast health in the UAE, says the organisation’s chairperson Her Excellency Reem Bin Karam.

Sitting down with Emirates Woman, Her Excellency discussed the importance of raising awareness that breast cancer can occur in both men and women, the main aims of Pink Caravan, the importance of early detection of breast cancer and more.

How do you hope to help women in the UAE?

The Pink Caravan is steering informative, important conversations on breast health in the UAE to shine the spotlight on breast cancer disease, its risks, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, and to encourage women to be proactive about their health. Knowing your body, conducting regular self-breast exams, becoming aware of any changes in breast appearance, and following appropriate screening guidelines will go a long way in halting breast cancer in its tracks.

We have observed a wide knowledge gap amongst women about facts related to breast cancer and the many misconceptions surrounding the disease. Hence, along with raising community awareness, the Pink Caravan is also attempting to dispel the many myths and stigma attached to the disease to ensure that every woman in the UAE is equipped with the knowledge to recognise the risks and signs of breast cancer, and is familiar with how and when to take action.

Since breast cancer is not gender-specific, we are also educating and informing men on the importance of early detection and regular screening. During the Pink Caravan Ride and throughout the breast cancer awareness month in October, we provide free medical screening for both men and women in partnership with our medical teams.

Our objective is for all men and women in the UAE to lead healthy and safe lifestyles and help support early detection of breast cancer globally.

In your opinion, what is the aim of breast cancer awareness month?

Every day of every month, throughout the year, organisations like the Friends Of Cancer Patients (FOCP), and its pan-UAE initiative, the Pink Caravan, are driving efforts to increase attention and support for the awareness, early detection, and treatment of breast cancer in the UAE. But October, the officially recognised breast cancer awareness month, gains greater significance as it leads to focused attention on this critical issue here in the UAE and globally.

As we all know, breast cancer is by far the most common cancer in women worldwide, and officially, there are 1.38 million new cases and around 500,000 deaths annually.

Now, 98 per cent of these cases are curable if detected early, and 80 per cent of breast cancer tumours are detected by self-examination. Our awareness campaigns for self-breast exams and clinical screening gain added momentum in October as we understand how vital preventative care and early diagnoses are in improving chances of survival, increasing the efficacy of treatment options, and consequently, enabling a better quality of life.

Pink Caravan UAE

Can you talk us through what the UAE’s Pink Caravan does?

As a pan-UAE breast cancer initiative, an annual highlight on the Pink Caravan calendar is the Pink Caravan Ride, which travels across the seven emirates, reaching remote areas and educating people through its four different routes. In its 10th edition earlier this year, a record 11,007 men and women were screened for breast cancer in the UAE under the strategically focused campaign. The 2020 edition of PCR mapped more than 150 km in the seven emirates accompanied by 150 equestrians, 350 doctors and medical professionals, and over 100 volunteers, delivering free screenings to citizens and residents of the UAE through more than 190 fixed, daily and mobile clinics.

The collaborative efforts of the Pink Caravan has also seen it team up with the University Hospital Sharjah, to launch the Sharjah Breast Care Centre, a comprehensive and multidisciplinary centre dedicated to the prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

When did you join Pink Caravan’s Higher Steering Committee?

I have been on the Pink Caravan’s Higher Steering Committee since its inception in 2011 and was appointed Chairperson in 2016, a position I hold to this date.

The Higher Steering Committee oversees all activities of the Pink Caravan initiative including its educational awareness and advocacy campaigns, fundraising efforts, free screening programmes, and collaborates with supporters and partners to drive forward its early detection agenda.

The annual Pink Caravan Ride which thrives on a strong spirit of volunteerism and civic duty upholds the UAE’s proud tradition of philanthropy to ensure the Pink Caravan Ride’s success. It is the role of the Higher Steering Committee to bring together this large body of volunteers, medical professionals, public health entities, community organisations, patrons and corporate partners to raise the banner of hope and wellbeing over the course of the 10-day ride, as we combine efforts to raise awareness of the need to defeat cancer.

What does Pink Caravan in the UAE aim to do for women during breast cancer awareness month and throughout the year?

The knowledge that early detection of breast cancer saves lives is the primary driving force behind the year-round activities of the Pink Caravan, which sees a significant surge in October and during the Pink Caravan Ride in February-March.

Many men and women in the UAE are still unaware of their risks, do not understand the signs and symptoms, and are unsure of what to do or where to go if they have concerns. Pink Caravan believes that communicating the right information is key to enabling people to make informed decisions about their health. Our breast cancer education programmes strive to create awareness and reduce the stigma of breast cancer as we are convinced that greater knowledge will lead to earlier detection of the disease.

One of our key messaging is that apart from the mandatory monthly self-breast examinations, men and women should get a medical screening done once every six months. Our free screening services are therefore made available twice a year, during the breast cancer awareness month in October and during the Pink Caravan Ride in February/March.

Can you tell us the significant ways you have helped women who are suffering from breast cancer / helped diagnose it?

After having conducted more than 75,000 clinical examinations in the Pink Caravan Ride’s 10-year history, 80 individuals, of various ages and ethnicities, have been diagnosed with varying stages of breast cancer. Of these, more than 50 have been cancer-free following treatment therapies that have included radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy, amongst others. They continue to maintain their routine annual check-ups.

While Pink Caravan assists in early detection through targeted free screening services at our fully equipped fixed and mobile clinics, it is FOCP that lend the moral support to assist cancer patients and their families through the cancer treatment journey that is fraught with both physical and emotional changes. The ultimate objective of both FOCP and the Pink Caravan is to be a leading force in the UAE in raising awareness of cancer.

Pink Caravan UAE 2

What do you encourage women to do in order to detect breast cancer early?

Through the Pink Caravan Ride’s relentless 10-year journey of breast cancer awareness advocacy across the UAE, our central focus has been to educate women, their partners and their families about the prevention and risk factors of breast cancer, ways to detect it early and nip it in the bud through the right treatment. When it comes to breast cancer especially, which can be fully cured in up to 98 per cent cases when detected early, the difference can be made by education, awareness and proactive action.

So, I encourage women to learn how to correctly examine themselves, regularly self-examine and book clinical screenings every 6 – 12 months, as these are integral to catching and treating the disease early, and will give them the best possible chance of survival if they are diagnosed with breast cancer. I want to mention here that no matter how scared or nervous one might feel about getting screened or tested, don’t give in. We are here to support and help you win, no matter the outcome. Do it for yourself and your loved ones.

What initiatives have you done this year to help this?  

We started the year with the Pink Caravan’s 10-year anniversary ride across the seven emirates. We offered free medical checks and screenings to 11,007 men and women among whom only six individuals tested positive. We are witnessing a year-on-year dip in the number of positive cases, for instance, this year’s number was lesser compared to the 2019 edition of the campaign, which reported 11 positive cases from 7,200 screenings, and is a strong indicator of the success of our strategically planned awareness and early detection campaign.

Then, in August, the Pink Caravan Mobile Medical Clinic, located at the Supreme Council for Family Affairs in Sharjah, conducted follow-up tests on 214 women who had previously undergone mammogram screenings at clinics held by the annual Pink Caravan Ride.

With Pink Caravan announcing over 40 events spanning free checkups and screenings in several emirates, awareness webinars and online lectures in four languages to mark International Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October has been busy for us and will continue to be. Additionally, we are also running our annual Corporate Wellness Day drive – a monthlong campaign in October that offers tailored packages of latest medical tests, breast screenings and awareness lectures to the UAE’s private sector.

Has people getting checked for cancer dropped this year due to the pandemic? How do you suggest this be combatted?

Halfway into the 10th Pink Caravan Ride in March, the pandemic had become very much of a reality for the UAE and the world. Despite the uncertainty around a communicable novel virus, our team of medical professionals and volunteers adapted quickly to enable the UAE community make the most of the free screenings and checkups. We adhered to the necessary safety protocols to successfully deliver 11,007 free screenings across the nation – almost 4,000 more than we screened in 2019.

Over the past few months, Pink Caravan has followed all precautionary measures while taking the mobile medical clinic to serve people across the seven emirates. It has not only offered numerous free screenings to the UAE’s citizens and residents, but also assisted the Mushairef Health Centre in Ajman, to boost their daily uptake of patients for vaccinations and checkups. For the 40 events planned this month too, we are working with numerous partners nationwide in the healthcare and other sectors to ensure maximum turnout for our medical screenings that are taking place in safe, controlled environments.

What are the statistics of breast cancer in the UAE?

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in women in the UAE. In 2018, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reported 1,054 new cases of breast cancer in the nation, 22.4 per cent of all new cases of cancer reported that year. Among the female population in the UAE, breast cancer accounted for 39.9 per cent newly diagnosed cases that year.

This is the reason why the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) and its partners, take screening very seriously. In 2018, for instance, as many as 697 women were screened in Dubai and the Northern Emirates in the month of October. Last year, breast cancer screenings were delivered to 5,384 females from January – December. In 2020 too, the numbers have been substantial with 390 and 424 breast cancer screenings offered in January and February, respectively.

What is the long-term goal of the Pink Caravan?

Pink Caravan has taken the lead to make the fight against cancer a community goal. Our long-term goal is to strengthen community awareness on the risks, symptoms, timely diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. For instance, 80 per cent of breast cancer tumours are detected by self-examination. Imagine how empowering it will be for our nation if this simple piece of information is known to and applied by every individual residing in the UAE?

From dispelling myths around breast cancer to eradicating the taboos associated with the disease, Pink Caravan is committed to closely collaborating with our partners and supporters to provide coordinated, comprehensive, effective and sustainable solutions to society. We are working dedicatedly towards transforming our hope of seeing a breast cancer-free country into a reality. This is Pink Caravan’s long-term goal.

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