In October of last year, more than 4,000 women in black abayas topped with pink ponchos gathered together in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to form a giant ribbon in support of breast cancer research–the largest human awareness ribbon to date. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the country–nearly one-quarter of all cancers–so the campaign to make it a larger part of the national conversation is critical.
Because Saudi women don’t get screened for breast cancer early or often, a majority of those with the disease—as many as 70 percent–are diagnosed at an advanced stage by the time they finally visit a doctor, leading to a lower survival rate compared to countries where the disease is caught earlier. In addition, 30 percent of breast cancer cases in Saudi Arabia occur in women under the age of 40, compared with five percent in the U.S.
Thanks to increased screenings, more awareness programs and improved medical treatment in the U.S., breast cancer incidence rates decreased by about 2 percent a year between 1998 and 2007, although the U.S. still has the highest breast- cancer rate in the world. But death rates from breast cancer in the U.S. have been declining, especially in women under 50. Most American women over 40 consider their yearly mammogram as routine as a getting their teeth cleaned.
In Saudi Arabia, however, getting a mammogram is seen as taboo. Carol Fleming, an American expat blogger, learned first-hand the impact of Saudi cultural stigmas associated with breast cancer. While living in Riyadh in 2008, she discovered a lump in her breast during a self-exam. When she went to a doctor for a mammogram, she was told there was a six-month waiting list, no exceptions. However, her connections at the facility allowed her to jump the waiting list, and she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer.
Fleming says a native Saudi woman might just as easily jump the line if she used her wasta (connections and influence), but even then she might forgo a mammogram because of the shame that exists in the country around women’s bodies. For poor women, who have little money and few connections, getting screened is next to impossible.