Saudi Arabia: HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud Speaks Out On Breast Cancer

American Bedu is honored to have an exclusive interview with HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud.  Princess Reema is one of the biggest advocates in Saudi Arabia on breast cancer.  She established the Zahra Breast Cancer Association to help bring awareness and support to women in Saudi Arabia.  In this interview she candidly talks about breast cancer in Saudi Arabia and how the cultural reactions to a breast cancer diagnosis bring special challenges to treatment and care.

Q)

I’d like to begin this interview, Reema, with some background for American Bedu readers, about breast cancer in Saudi Arabia.  How many women per year are diagnosed with breast cancer in Saudi Arabia?  Is there an average age?

A)

In 2005, the total number of cancer incident cases reported to the Saudi Cancer Registry was 10,513. Breast cancer cases were 948 which means 12.5 percent of the Saudis affected by cancer are affected by breast cancer. It has been difficult to confirm specific numbers of cases afflicted by the disease due to the fact that many women in villages and rural areas are unaccounted for. In Saudi specifically the average is around 40-50, but recently, we are seeing some cases as early as 30 years of age.  As you can see our statistics are not current, and this is part of the problem we face as an organization.  This further highlights the importance of our job to spread awareness.

Q)

In your opinion, are these figures on the high side or low side as compared to world statistics of women and breast cancer?  For every Saudi woman that is diagnosed, how many more Saudi women remain undiagnosed?

A)

In comparison to international statistics, Saudi Arabia is on the low side but breast cancer is still affecting a significant number of the population at a younger age and that is the statistic that is frightening. Awareness is not where it should be. As mentioned before, the statistical information is not as accurate as it should be.  We will be receiving more current information soon, we hope, after the Kingdom’s census initiative.

Q)

What is the typical or average stage of breast cancer are Saudi women being diagnosed?

A) Unfortunately, stage 3-4.  The majority being from the villages and rural areas.  By the time they have filtered into the mainstream medical centers, the disease has spread.  What we hope to achieve by reaching out to them specifically is to allow them into treatment in the earliest stages of the disease.

According to Dr. Muna Baslaim, a Breast Surgeon and head of Breast Cancer Unit at King Fahd General Hospital in Jeddah: “Approximately 70 percent of breast-cancer cases in Saudi Arabia are diagnosed when victims are in the advanced stage of the disease, which means the survival rate is lower than in nations where more cases are diagnosed early.”

Q)

Saudi Arabia is known for its conservatism and private society.  How have these cultural practices impacted on education and awareness of breast cancer?

A)

There is local effort to raise awareness. Also, within the right context people are willing to talk about breast cancer and the effects it has on them or members of the society. Again, this is where our organization takes the lead in the discussion.  As women we are able to enter into the private spaces and engage directly with other women and talk freely to educate them on the significance of breast cancer to their health and their families’ well-being.

Q)

What organizations are available for Saudi women which provide information, resources and support about breast cancer?

A) 

The Zahra Breast Cancer Association is one of the premier sources of information on breast cancer is Saudi Arabia. We collaborate with organizations in the North of the Kingdom and also with various medical centers and associations.  This is not a single person or single groups effort.  We believe in team work and community spirit to unite us all in the fight against breast cancer.

Q)

How was the concept of Zahra Breast Cancer Association conceived?  When was it established?  How has it grown?  What is the mission and vision of Zahra?

A)

The Zahra Breast Cancer Association was created by a group of phenomenal women that I am proud to be associated with. These women began their campaign nine years ago in the Saudi capital of Riyadh by visiting women in schools, universities, shopping malls and mosques. The volunteers spoke with women about the importance of early detection and getting regular mammograms, the commonly used test to detect breast cancer tumors. The volunteers saw that women were eager to learn more and teach others about breast cancer, thus they created the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, the association was formally established in 2007.

Zahra’s mission and vision is to make an effective contribution in the fight against breast cancer and reach brighter future free from the effects of breast cancer in Saudi Arabia and to raise awareness among women of Saudi society and the early detection of breast cancer, treatment and prevention, and reducing its negative effects, and working with the infected and affected by a step-by-step for the cure.

Q)

What is the biggest challenge associated with education and awareness of breast cancer in Saudi Arabia?  How is Zahra working towards overcoming this challenge?

A) One of the biggest challenges we face is discussing such a private part of the body in public.  We have had to use creative approaches to reach the ladies of our community. We have a policy to reach out directly to the women, in particular in the rural areas, and go to them rather than expect them to come to us.  We have monthly trips throughout the country talking about health and self exams in relation to breast cancer.  We also have a project called Bayt Zahra (The House of Zahra) that is essentially a 4 walled kiosk that travels from mall to mall that houses a nutritionist and health educator.  In this way we allow women to come into our ‘house’ and discuss their health, learn how to perform a self-exam and other personal issues in private.  We have had great success with this project.

Another challenge has been in creating the dialogue and materials that are effective yet acceptable to our region and community.

Q)

What are the five most important points you’d like for individuals to know about Saudi Arabia and breast cancer?

A)

–   Breast cancer is a disease that affects men and women with no prejudice.

–    Breast cancer is treatable if found at an early stage

–    The families affected by breast cancer are not alone; there is a network of support ready to help them.

–     We are actively working to reach our community and develop a dialogue that lifts the stigma of breast cancer

–     We are young in our efforts with regards to breast cancer awareness but growing in our actions to eradicate this disease.

Q)

Can a woman receive treatment and assistance for breast cancer in Saudi Arabia without the approval of a mahrem (male guardian)?

A)

Yes she can. The hospital does not require approval from the mahrem/male guardian.

Q)

What support and resources are there for families who have a family member diagnosed and treated for breast cancer?

A)

Zahra Breast Cancer Association hosts workshops and lectures to educate the families. These are run by certified counselors and therapists. Families are also encouraged to attend the support group meetings to know more about the breast cancer, the journey. Zahra hosts ‘survivor’ gatherings and they in turn help others in need.  We have developed an amazing community that we are very proud of.

Q)

Are there breast cancer support groups in Saudi Arabia?  How can one join and/or participate in a support group?

A)

Some hospitals have dedicated breast cancer support groups. Zahra has the Zahrat Amal Group (a flower of hope) , a support group which meets monthly and organizes amazing activities to support each other. To join them you can either visit the Zahra offices and register or online via the Zahra website.

Q)

Why are support groups beneficial to a breast cancer patient and family members?

A)

Support groups are important because they create a safe space for patients and family members to talk openly about their experiences, concerns and most importantly to provide support for each other. A support group is essential to a patient’s progress while undergoing treatment as it gives them a venue to connect with other who have gone through or are going through the same experiences.  The concept of talking openly about such a private matter is new to us in Saudi.

At Zahra, we are proud to say that the numbers of women using this resource has grown, as has their confidence in asking for help.  We are truly at the forefront of eliminating a taboo and breaking a wall when it comes to communication.  I am very proud of this achievement. No one should go through this alone.

Q)

The caregiver(s) also plays a major role in taking care of and supporting a loved one diagnosed with breast cancer.  What support and resources are available for caregivers in Saudi Arabia?

A)

The Ministry of Health has a network of specialized hospitals across the country that has programs to engage with families of cancer patients in general. They have a program that is offered during the course of treatment like psychological counseling, health education and consultations with a physiotherapist.

Q)

Where can a woman obtain mastectomy products in Saudi Arabia such as prosthesis and bras?  Where can she obtain an adjustable binder if necessary?

A)

Zahra has a dedicated store ‘ Lamsat Zahra ‘ (Zahra’s Touch) for all the needs of a woman undergoing chemotherapy and a woman’s post-surgery needs.  We offer individuals the option to ‘support a cancer patient’ as a donation for those in need. We also work with Yibreen Spa in Riyadh to offer patients courses on how to take care of your skin and develop a beauty regimen while undergoing treatment and post surgery as the skin and body is more sensitive and needs to be taken care of differently.

Q)

Can one volunteer for Zahra?  Must a volunteer be Saudi?  How does one become a volunteer?

A)

According to the guidelines of the Ministry of Social Affairs members and employees of charitable organizations must be Saudi.  However, volunteer opportunities are open to both Saudis and non-Saudis. Anyone can log onto the Zahra website and fill out the volunteer application to be part of our team or stop by the office or give us a call!

Q)

Are there any special activities or events being planned for Breast Cancer Awareness month in October?

A)

October is the busiest month for us, though we have on going programs throughout the year. Zahra hosted in the beginning of the month in collaboration with Oasis magazine an auction to raise funds for our mobile mammogram machines. Throughout the month our ‘Bayt Zahra’ has circulated through out the malls in 4 cities. We have participated in lectures and talks throughout the country in colleges, medical centers and various other locations.

The finale of our October activities will be the formation of what we hope will be the largest human pink ribbon chain that is taking place under the banner “A Woman’s Stand”.  The aim of the campaign is to break a Guinness World Record in the category of the Largest Human Awareness Ribbon on the 28 October 2010 in Jeddah, KSA.

Q)

How can one contact Zahra for information and/or to become more involved in education and awareness of breast cancer within Saudi Arabia?

A)

Through its website: www.zahra.org.sa . We recently launched it in English as well as Arabic.

Q)

In closing, are there any additional remarks you’d like to make?

A)

I wanted to thank you for giving us the opportunity to tell our story.  We have a vital message to disseminate that is larger than the border of our country. Breast Cancer is a disease that knows no border, no nation, no religion.  We in Saudi through Zahra and multiple other organizations and medical centers are working our hardest to generate awareness and we appreciate any opportunity that will allow us to reach anyone who is willing to listen and learn.  Our goal is to educate our society and remove the taboo on the subject.  We are confident in our message and diligent in our work. We can make a difference, we can effect change.

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33 Responses

  1. Carol,
    Thanks for this long and very informative interview.

    The Princess is doing a lot for this cause there.

  2. What I would like to know, is why when a women goes to an OB/GYN she is often not given a breast exam or a PAP smear? This seems like very poor medicine to me. This shouldn’t be something that requires special outreach. The women are already in the Dr.’s office. At a minimum they should be getting the proper screens while they are there.

  3. Reema I believe, used to be friends with my Sister in Law Marah. They attended ISA (Islamic Saudi Academy) together here in the Metro DC area.

    If that is true then she might be aware that my mother in law, whom both her father and mother knew, fought breast cancer years ago. It was an outcome that was favourable, thank God, but not without a lot of sacrifice.

    She lived another 20 years and later died of unrelated medical issues, may Allah have mercy on her soul.

    This is about as worthy as a cause as they come.

  4. Seems I got it wrong, Faten was friends with Reema, Marah with Lulu? Either way.

  5. I commend Reema for thinking and acting out of the family box.

    My question is: Why Reema is the head of the group instead of a well rained commoner female physician who does not have intimidating royal power which prevents women from expressing their grievances freely and in a none suppliant manner.

    Saudis, in general, suffer from lack of good health-care facilities, access, maltreatment by physicians, especially if they are women, have no Wastah, or don’t hail from prominent families, preferred regions and God help them if they are non-Western expatriates or religious minorities-“heretics”?

    As long as there is no accountability, transparency, accountable management, from top to bottom, and good health care facilities in most parts of the country, thousands of Saudi women (especially those who reside outside of major cities) will be infected with and die from breast cancer and other diseases in deafening silence.

    Independent scientific, reliable and credible surveys are forbidden in Saudi Arabia for fear of exposing the system’s failures to attend to its disenfranchised and voiceless subjects’ (Ra-e-yah, herd) needs.

    As they say in Minnesota, where is the beef, or where do the billions go? Jizan or Monaco?

  6. @Ali,

    Good question. I have seen all of this talk about “reform” in Saudi, but all of the councils, organisations and groups that are pointed to are always filled with either princes, princesses or people closely associated with the ruling elite.

    To me it is hardly reform when these groups are stuffed with people with a vested interest in keeping the things the same, with protecting the establishment.

    There is a reason why, when people with resources in Saudi get really sick, they head abroad. Saudi royals have closed down entire floors of hospitals here in the US and taken over entire floors of hotels whilst they come here for treatment. Same in Europe.

    I will believe in true reform in Saudi when I see that the majority of slots in these organisations are filled by the average people on the street, not people from a particular family or with close ties to the ruling elite.

    I know of two female Saudi doctors, one here in the DC area and one in Canada, that would be great candidates to lead an organisation like this and others. They spent years educating themselves and training to be doctors and spent their lives in dedicated service to others.

    These are the types of people that should be heading these things up.

  7. Reema had the ability and resources to get out there and establish Zahra. She is the head of Zahra but there are indeed female physicians who are part of Zahra and quite active. I think folks are too quick to judge here.

    Why do women not get exams or pap smears? Granted; if a woman is not married, it is less likely she would be subjected to a pap smear due to cultural fears of affecting her virginity. Or in some cases, the husband or male mahrem may elect to be in the examination room. Thankfully this is changing but it still does happen sometimes.

    I have been to and was treated myself by outstanding Saudi female OB/GYN and Breast Surgeon (separate physicians).

  8. @ Princess Reema,
    I would like to thank you personally for your time and your efforts that you are devoting for spreading breast cancer awareness in the Saudi society. I have a suggestion for spreading more awareness. My suggestion to Zahra centre is to coordinate with the Ministry of health, Ministry of education and Ministry of social affairs to unite efforts for printing out millions of leafs, brochures, booklets which explain in details, Zahra campaign message, definition of breast cancer, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, facilities that offer treatment, contacts, etc. and to distribute all these stuff in schools, mosques, health clinic centres, humanitarian bodies in rural areas, hospitals and private health sector facilities across Saudi. In addition, I suggest that you make a free phone line unit to be in contact with people who seek more information about breast cancer. I am sure this will be a promising step for spreading more breast cancer awareness. Thank you and good luck.

    @ali
    My question is: Why Reema is the head of the group instead of a well rained commoner female physician who does not have intimidating royal power which prevents women from expressing their grievances freely and in a none suppliant manner.

    First of all, your question is politically oriented and it is off topic. Second, this is none of your business because you do not belong to breast cancer awareness group. Third, your question is a bad reference to other ladies in the group and you imply that such ladies are nothing and they are just yes women which makes you own apology to these ladies who are working hard in this group. Fourth, it is not necessary that a physician should be the leader of a group in a clinic or hospital or whatever. This is called, technocratic management which I am personally not in favour of. Management needs someone specialised in management if we will take your favourite technocratic management policy into account. That is, leader of the group should be someone specialised in management not in medicine. Prince Reema has the personality traits of a leader; she can influence others to join the campaign because she is a prominent active lady in Saudi society and she made a lot of efforts for this campaign. Prince Reema has also social connections, so she can use her social connections in the Saudi society to support breast cancer awareness financially and socially. So, she is the appropriate person who has been elected by her colleagues in the group to lead the group. Finally, I am asking you, what did you do for spreading breast cancer awareness in the Saudi society? I bet, you did nothing except your negative post above.

  9. Carol,

    I get your point, but why is it that any organisation set up in Saudi almost by necessity has to be run or headed by a member of the royal family or someone from the establishment?

    It isn’t just about this particular group, but in general. How successful would any organisation in Saudi be that included no members of the royal family or the establishment? Could the average “Taysir” or “Wahida” on the streets of Jeddah start an organisation on their own and purposely have no ties with those in positions of power and expect the group to succeed and flourish?

    Of course Reema has done a good thing. She isn’t to blame for the system that she was born into or her family. The issue I have is with the entire system itself, not her or this organisation. Anything done to benefit people, especially sick people, is something I support.

    The fact that she has made a choice to work on such a project whilst others in her social class spend their entire lives traveling, shopping and doing nothing to benefit anybody but themselves speaks to her nature in a very good way.

  10. @ab, your post is off topic.

  11. @Medina,

    It is entirely on topic. Sorry if you dont like it. Conversations, unless you are unaware of it, often tend to end up covering different aspects of parts of the original post or idea. That is just how human conversations and dialogues work.

  12. “I commend Reema for thinking and acting out of the family box.”

    You are right, my comment is politically oriented, but you are making a wrong assumption about me.

    Actually, I have done something about breast cancer in “Saudi” Arabia, but not for personal aggrandizement, praises or recognition.

    I have also spent most of my adult life highlighting Saudi women’s oppression, marginalization, exclusion and sale to the highest bidder, even at age 8.

    All done in the name of tradition and Islam when in fact the root causes of reducing Saudi women to commodities have to do more with economics and politics than anything else.

    I realize the topic is sensitive and the person in question is a princess who have power over some of the participants in this enlightening discussion which I appreciate immensely.

    I think the interview should be put back for more discussion. Reema is educated and capable individual; she can speak for herself. Frankly, I would rather have her respond to my comment than being treated as invisible Saudi woman who has to depend on others to feed and speak for her-the institutionalized male guardian system.

    I am convinced that she would like to learn about what others think or say, so she could defend herself or improve her work. That’s how we learn and grow and in this case liberating.

  13. I am glad Reema uses her influence in a positive way. And I hope she always will.

    Women who are pregnant or in for post-natel care are already at the dr. office. Why are so many not examined? It’s a no-brainer to me. I asked my Dr. (male, Arab) he just shook his head. He didn’t understand and many of the Dr.’s are women who are neglecting to do this. But it doesn’t matter the gender. If a woman is seeing an ob/gyn they should be screened.

  14. Thank you Carol and Princess Reema for bringing the Zahra foundation to the spotlight. Very informative interview which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I hope it will be a helpful one to someone who is somehow touched by breast cancer and read it.

  15. @ali,
    “You are right, my comment is politically oriented” (ali),
    So, your whole post is off topic and it should be dropped off. And you are right Reema is an educated cultured lady and she can speak for her self of course and she does not need me to defend her. I ONLY defend her efforts in the Saudi society in reference to breast cancer awareness but I personally believe that your post should not take her attention for two reasons. First, your post is off topic and our main point here is breast cancer awareness. Consequently, your post will drag the conversation to irrelevant issues and patients who are suffering from the breast cancer will be left out in this topic and this is unfair and bizarre. Second, professionally and academically, your post is considered rude and backward. And I am wondering, how a PhD holder speaks about something irrelative to the main point of the discussion?

    Reema also is not a government employee to be in a position of a person in question, she is a guest in the blog and she is a volunteer working in Zahra centre devoting her time, efforts, and resources for breast cancer patients but it seems to me that you are rude to our guest and questioning her in this blog. And I am wondering, how do you say that you are defending women rights and you are against women oppression while you are rude to a lady here? This is contradiction and actions speak louder than words, especially, if these words are said for “personal aggrandizement, praises or recognition”. I think you need to go back to Saudi to learn how to greet guests warmly.

  16. Medina,

    You have some good points.

    Please go back and read what I wrote and compare it with the post above and see who is denigrating the discourse.

    Median, If my comments are going to cause suffering Saudi women to suffer more, then the situation is more dreary than you described.

    Median “…it seems to me that you are rude to our guest and questioning her in this blog.” Guest?

    You are good writer, Median.

  17. Q)

    Can a woman receive treatment and assistance for breast cancer in Saudi Arabia without the approval of a mahrem (male guardian)?

    A)

    Yes she can. The hospital does not require approval from the mahrem/male guardian.

    Maybe the princes is talking about the center but other governmental hospital around the kingdom required approval as if he comes and ask to stop the treatment he have the right to do this .

  18. More power to Princess Reema and other women who are trying to increase awareness about an important health problem. I think comments and questions on this site should be limited only to the work that the gorup is doing. We should encourage and support the efforts of Zahra and similar groups who are working for the benefit of others.
    Thanks Zahra for carrying this torch.

  19. Dear webmaster/managers,
    I would like to interview HRH Princess Reema Bandar, please arrange either one to one interview or interview by phone or even interview by email. Thanks

  20. Ghazanfar Ali Khan,

    With all respect, I do not organize or arrange such interviews.

    Best Regards, Carol

  21. All organizations want a recognizable name to head them. Someone who has a big social network and is a known and respected member of society. It’s the same all over the world. You will find every organization is vying for a “celebrity” of sorts to be it’s head in order to attract more attention. But many people often miss the bigger picture (breast cancer awareness) and focus on a small element just to try and prove a point.
    It’s a shame the comments ended up being about this instead of breast cancer awareness.

  22. Also, have any of you met any Saudi women? it’s highly unlikely they will be afraid to speak their mind to anyone! As a Saudi woman I resent it being implied. All you have to do is watch the national debate on TV to know Saudi women are not “intimidated by royal power” and have no trouble expressing themselves.

  23. Thank you Mama Bee for excellent points!!

  24. […] Saudi Arabia: HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud Speaks Out On Breast Cancer – AmericanBedu.com –… […]

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  27. […] detection of breast cancer.  The campaign was conducted by Adalid Public Relations on behalf of HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud.  HRH Princess Reema is one of the driving forces behind the Zahra Breast Cancer Association which […]

  28. […] do know that 12.5 percent of Saudi’s diagnosed with cancer have breast cancer and that these women are usually diagnosed at a Stage 3 or Stage IV […]

  29. […] detection of breast cancer.  The campaign was conducted by Adalid Public Relations on behalf of HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud.  HRH Princess Reema is one of the driving forces behind the Zahra Breast Cancer Association which […]

  30. […] have always had and continue to have the highest respect and admiration for HRH Princess Reema Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud.  She never disappoints and continues to have new innovative plans that […]

  31. […] shape of the global symbol of breast cancer awareness.” RELATED: American Bedu blog interviews HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud about Breast Cancer. “Princess Reema is one of the biggest advocates in Saudi Arabia on breast cancer.  She […]

  32. It is very good to read. Sh aring such a wonderful experience with all.

  33. It appears that you have interviewed the wrong princess!

    According to your above intro, Princess Reema established the Zahra Breast Cancer Association. This is not true, another princess did that. If you like more info. Let me know.

    Also, you have printed the wrong name for Princess Reema.

    Your information: Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud

    Correct Name: Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz

    Those are costly mistakes and they are offensive to two princesses which could compromise your future relationship with them and with their supporters!

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