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Pioneering Support – Interview with Aisha Al Mulla, Director of Friends of Cancer Patients


Pioneering Support

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Emirates Woman sits down with Aisha Al Mulla, Director of Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP) to discuss the pioneering support the organisation gives with its Pink Caravan initiative

Firstly, what is Pink Caravan? What pioneering work is it doing for breast cancer patients in the UAE? Formally speaking, Pink Caravan is a breast cancer awareness and early detection initiative by Friends of Cancer Patients – the UAE-based global cancer nonprofit I represent. If I describe what Pink Caravan is at an unofficial human level, it is our nation’s leading initiative that has lifted the veil of myths and misconceptions that surrounded breast cancer in our society back in 2009 when the initiative was launched.

Fast forward to 2022, women in the UAE are no longer shy to come to our free clinics for their annual breast health checks. The patients we have supported financially and morally through their journeys of diagnosis, treatment and recovery share their stories and inspire hope in others affected by the disease without hesitation or embarrassment. Today, men come to our free facilities during our annual weeklong nationwide Pink Caravan Ride to get breast examinations done to ensure they are risk-free.

Debunking taboos and enabling members of the UAE community to accept breast cancer as a reality of life, empowering them with awareness about the symptoms and risks of the ailment and providing them access to free diagnosis and treatment facilities are all pioneering achievements for Pink Caravan. Today, no one in the country suffers in isolation; the nation has come together to fight and win over breast cancer as one. I proudly attribute a portion of this success to our relentless and committed efforts. How does your role support Friends of Cancer Patients and the Pink Caravan? An essential part of my role at FOCP and the Pink Caravan is providing guidance to the teams and ensuring that tasks and projects are aligned with the vision set by Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of His Highness Ruler of Sharjah, Royal Patron of FOCP and Chairperson of Sharjah Supreme Council for Family Affairs as well as FOCP’s mission. It also involves keeping up to date with medical research as well as cutting-edge medical innovations in the health sector. Another essential part of my role is to ensure that our beneficiaries receive exceptional treatment and care. Our beneficiaries’ health and wellbeing are and always will be our main priority. A breast self-exam: how does one perform one and what are the things to look out for? Great question, and one that every woman should know the answer to. The importance of a breast self-exam (BSE) is that it enables us to detect any unusual changes or lumps that might form. The best time to do a monthly self-breast exam is about three to five days after your period starts. Do it at the same time every month. Our breasts are not as tender or lumpy at this time in the monthly cycle. For women who have gone through menopause, I suggest doing the exam on the same day every month. There are three main positions for conducting a BSE: lying down, standing or while in the shower. It is easiest however to examine all breast tissue in a lying position. Next, sit or stand and feel your armpit because breast tissue goes into that area. Gently squeeze the nipple, checking for discharge. Repeat the process on the left breast. With fingertips close together, gently probe each breast in circular and linear motions, ensuring you are covering all of the breast tissue. Look at your breasts directly and in the mirror. Look for changes in skin texture, such as dimpling, puckering, indentations, or skin that looks like an orange peel. Also, note the shape and outline of each breast. Check to see if the nipple turns inward.

The goal of a monthly BSE is to get used to the feel of your breasts. This will help you to find anything new or different. If you do, call your doctor right away. Why? Because the earlier we detect the malignancy, the better our chances of effective treatment and full recovery. There is a 98% chance of full recovery in patients whose breast cancer is detected at an early stage. What is the right age for undergoing annual breast health check-ups, and what symptoms should lead us to book a consultation with our doctor? Changing, predominantly sedentary lifestyles, the food we eat, the stress of our jobs have all contributed to significantly reducing the age group impacted by breast cancer. Over the past few years, Pink Caravan has detected it in women in their mid-20s and early 30s with breast malignancies, so the right age range is 25 - 30 years. For annual mammograms in healthy females, we recommend 40 years and above.

The symptoms to look out for during your monthly BSEs include a suspicious lump, change in breast shape or size, retraction of the nipple, change in colour or texture of the skin, discharge especially bloody secretions from the nipple, and/or continuous pain in the breast in one place. One must consult a physician immediately if they experience any of the above symptoms.

Upon running a few basic tests, the physician will decide whether or not to refer you to an oncologist – doctors who specialise in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Are there any myths about breast cancer that you can debunk? Absolutely, there’s a host of misconceptions that surround it. Things


like any lump one feels in their breast is cancer or it always causes a lump one can feel. Early-stage breast cancer does not recur, carrying a cell phone in one’s chest pocket causes breast cancer, or that it happens only to middle-aged or older women. Other popular myths include complacency in people who don’t have a family history of breast cancer or in certain individuals who eat healthily, do not smoke or consume alcohol and exercise regularly. True, breast cancer is one of the better-known and more talked-about cancers, but there are still so many misconceptions out there.

What is the main aim of international Breast Cancer Awareness Month? October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness about the impact of breast cancer. It is a crucial and annual reminder of the risks of breast malignancies and an opportunity for governments, healthcare practitioners, and civil society organisations dedicated to cancer prevention and control to raise public awareness about risk factors that increase the possibility of developing breast cancer, methods of prevention, the importance of early detection, target groups, and providing integrated service to fight breast cancer from detection to treatment. What causes breast cancer? We do know that normal breast cells can become cancerous because of changes or mutations in genes. Most breast cancers (about 90%) develop from acquired (not inherited) gene changes that have not yet been identified. Only about one in 10 breast cancers (10%) are linked with known abnormal genes that are passed on from parents and are therefore inherited. Certain breast cancer risk factors are related to personal behaviours, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, poor diet leading to being overweight or obese and lack of physical activity. Other lifestyle-related risk factors include decisions about having children and taking medicines that contain hormones. Some risk factors for breast cancer are things one cannot change, such as getting older or inheriting certain gene changes. What are the most common questions you get from patients after a breast cancer diagnosis? A positive cancer diagnosis is a shock to the system and leaves the freshly diagnosed patient and their loved ones in a disarray, particularly those who have no family history of cancer and haven’t experienced it through a friend or a relative. Our counsellors at FOCP come into the picture immediately after tests confirm breast cancer in a patient, supporting them psychologically from day 1 of their journey of treatment and recovery. At the onset, the most common questions we are asked include the stage of malignancy detected, the best course of treatment, ways to receive financial help for expensive treatment or moral support for the patient as well as their families. Some patients tell us they are in denial while some others ascertain they will die and do not inform their families. These are extreme emotional responses and completely understandable as cancer is a difficult pill to swallow. Some patients ask if they have any time to live while others drown in dismay asking ‘why me’. We also get asked practical questions like side effects of chemotherapy, places one can find wigs, opportunities for peer group support, and the length of chemotherapy cycles.

“There is a 98% chance of full recovery in patients whose breast cancer is detected at an early stage.”