Where Women are Ashamed of Breast Cancer

There are still places where breast cancer is thought to be contagious

Lesley Jane Seymour
On Friday night, the eve of Egypt s Race for the Cure, the Pyramids of Giza were lit pink.
Photograph: Photo by Wayne Johns for Susan G. Komen for the Cure

October 23, 2009: Cairo, Egypt: "Just five years ago there was a culture of silence around breast cancer," said Mohamed Shaalan, MD., founder and chairman of the board of The Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt. He was speaking during breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Official Delegation, a group of forty women—including moi—who are here to cheer on, and run with, 3000 Egyptian women and breast cancer survivors, in this Saturday’s race for the cure which will take place around the pyramids in Giza.  “If a woman felt a lump, she didn’t know where to go or what to do."
Dr. Shaalan fielded a study that showed that most Egyptian women waited six to nine months to get help after they felt a lump.  Many then feared a biopsy could  spread the disease throughout their body.  As for prevention, most women were too poor to even afford screening.  "The cost of a mammogram is $50, “ he said.  “But few women make that much in a month." Today BCFE runs a free mammogram program which screens 200 mostly-poor women each month.

Later that night I met up with Faiza Abdel Khalek, a breast cancer survivor of eighteen years and co-founder of HOPE, a support group for women with breast cancer.  “People still think cancer is contagious,” she said.  “A woman, if she has a daughter, fears telling people because no one will marry her daughter.”  Ms. Khalek also said that Egyptians still shun the words “breast cancer,” preferring the names “The Bad Disease” or “The Evil Disease.”  “Some women even fear telling their husbands because they might divorce them. I’ve seen cases of husbands—regardless of their socio-economic status—deserting their wives.”  While Ms. Khalek said she has also “seen examples of supportive families and husbands,” the Komen race and all the publicity surrounding it “will help people to start talking about breast cancer.”

Which all makes me glad I’ve come back to Egypt (Jeff and I spent our 20th anniversary here two years ago) to help report on the event. We had a wonderful dinner at Mena House where we did watch the pyramids turn pink.  It’s so wonderful to see the amazing camaraderie in the room of women who range from Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker, founding chair of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, to my bus partner for the day, Sue L. Morgan, who is the vice president, Franchise Food & Beverage for Intercontinental Hotels Group PLC of the United Kingdom.  Watch for my race-day postings tomorrow. The turnout looks to be huge with many survivors having the courage to wear the pink t-shirt for the first time.

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