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Breast Cancer a Socially Taboo Topic

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Ten years ago, three time cancer survivor Yuthar Al Rawahy, 59, set off on a passionate mission to raise awareness about cancer in Oman. It turned out to be extremely tough, particularly when it came to talking out publicly about breast cancer.

Despite being the most common type of cancer affecting women in Oman, breast cancer was a socially taboo topic. In fact, this mother-of-five found herself receiving negative reactions to her advocacy work - many women were shocked to see her discussing breast health so openly. But she remained undeterred and persisted in spreading the word about early detection and diagnosis. Her first organised meeting in Muscat resulted in an overwhelming response. "Two hundred women showed up - all hungry for more information," recalls Al Rawahy. Since then, there has been no turning back.

Over the years, her tireless work has transformed the face of cancer support and awareness building in Oman. By 2004, Al Rawahy had founded the National Association for Cancer Awareness (NACA), the country's first registered national cancer awareness organisation and with it established a support base for those diagnosed with cancer and in need of comfort and information.

Today, the results of Al Rawahy's tireless work are only too visible. Years of generating breast cancer awareness has led to social barriers being overcome and an increasing number of women turning up at hospitals for examinations - many resulting in early diagnosis and complete cure, as well. But with breast cancer currently making up 17.7 per cent of female cancer cases in Oman, the NACA recently launched the country's first Mobile Mammography Unit (MMU) in order to make breast examination and early diagnosis easier and accessible for women across the country.

"The MMU is a big achievement not only for the NACA but for Oman as a nation," says Al Rawahy, who launched the service in November 2009. "What inspired me to introduce this facility in Oman is the fact that many lives are saved because of screening. The lack of a facility like the MMU can result in many women going to the hospital when the disease is at a late stage and this invariably results in metastasise and death," she elaborates.

The first of its kind in Oman, the MMU, which meets the World Health Organization's Regulation for Radiation Safety, was built locally and it took nearly seven years of rigorous fundraising to garner the adequate finances to make it happen. Incidentally, it is also the first MMU in the Middle East to be funded by an NGO. Custom-built at a cost of Omani Rials 38,800 (over a million US dollars), it has an all-female staff, which is crucial to raising the comfort level of the women it reaches out to. The staff comprises a unit manager, receptionist, radiographer, driver and an electrician that work on a weekly rotation basis.

The MMU, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities like a digital mammography machine and a stabilising system, gives both urban and rural women access to quality medical care, completely free of charge. Here's how the mobile clinic operates: Upon entering the MMU, the patient has to fill out a basic health history form. After this, she is led to the mammography area to get a mammogram. All this takes around five to 10 minutes. After the mammogram, the patient is given a disc, which has the images. The same images are transmitted to the NACA where they are examined by a specialised radiologist. If abnormalities are detected, the images are transmitted directly to the oncology centres at Royal and Khoula Hospitals as well as the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, where a treatment plan is drawn up.

For the NACA, offering a medical service like the MMU goes hand in hand with taking their advocacy work to the next level. Starting from early 2010, workshops, which are part of their outreach programme, have been planned all over Oman as the MMU travels around. Their goal is to educate women about the necessity of self-examination and good breast health.

In a country where there is a severe lack of counsellors for cancer patients, the NACA's work has turned out to be invaluable. In addition to the existing female cancer support group meetings organised once a month in Muscat, Al Rawahy plans to create patient support and volunteer groups in other parts of the country as well. And she hopes that the MMU will prove to be of great help in increasing early breast cancer detection in women and, therefore, help in reducing mortality. "Unfortunately, acquiring one (MMU) took a long time because of the finances but its better late than never," she says. "The first thing I promised myself after my treatment was to make sure that I do everything in my power to save lives." And she is certainly determined to keep her promise.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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