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Young Times

FACES / Dr Houriya Kazim

Killing the Killer Disease

When she saw woman patients hesitate to get themselves examined by male doctors, a dream was conceived. Amid all the social conservatism, lack of awareness and an essentially male-dominated arena, the UAE was in bad need of a woman specialist for breast cancer - the foremost killer disease among women worldwide. Expat doctors were there, but language and cultural barriers did pretty little to get local Arab women come out and get themselves checked up, educated and made aware of the risk factors involved. Someone from within the community had to break tradition and take the first step. Dr Houriya Kazim decided to take up that challenge and fill that much-needed vacuum, writes Irum Durrani.

During her internship in Dubai's Rashid Hospital, Dr Houriya Kazim was witness to the levels of hesitation and inhibition women had in getting themselves examined by male doctors, which forced them to ignore pain and let symptoms persist. "I used to examine women behind the curtains and speak aloud to make a male doctor write the patient's report. That was really difficult". This need of local women made her go to the Royal College of Sugeons in Ireland for a fellowship in general surgery. She sub-specialised in surgical oncology, in particular, breast surgery. "It may not have been such a big issue for any country in the West, but in a society where women seldom step out and become professionals, let alone a profession requiring a lot of public interaction, Dr Kazim had taken a giant step forward.

Unlike other illnesses, breast cancer and its prevention involves sensitivities of women especially in traditional and conservative societies. But lack of awareness fuels the spread of the disease even further. "Local women are least aware of breast cancer and the cure, they are afraid of lumps cause they don't know that nine out of ten lumps are not cancerous", she said.

"Where there is will there is a way," she says with a glint of confidence in her eyes. "You can do anything in this world if you want it sincerely", says the lady who is the UAE's first lady specialist in breast surgery.

Exposure to the glitzy lifestyle and promising job offers from European countries could have lured her away from her objective. But her resolve was stronger than the lure. It could never stop her from coming back and serve her nation. "It never affected me, I always knew that I'll be coming back".

Apart from fulfilling the responsible roles of mother and wife successfully she is spearheading an effort to make local women aware of the dreaded disease. Apart from attending to patients' woes, her hands are full of awareness projects. She actively participates in BurJuman Centre's Safe and Sound Breast Cancer Campaign, of which Welcare Hospital is the medical partner.

She writes articles to spread awareness in many women-related magazines and even conducts programmes in local clubs, to reach out to the maximum number of women and apprise them about simple techniques of self-examination. Dr Kazim has been a strong proponent of young women learning to examine their breasts properly and making it a regular habit to arrest any growth and prevent the spread of any tumours. "A patient has a 95 per cent of full recovery if tumours are found before they have spread to any gland. Unfortunately, you have to find it first, and that's not happening here."

Dr Kazim recommends young women to begin having annual check ups with breast specialists. "My parents never took me to doctor till I fell sick", she confesses, "but regular check-ups are necessary." Sophisticated diagnostic tools like mammograms are also likely to miss growths because young breast tissue is dense, and even in older women there is only 20 per cent chance of a tumour being detected. Regular self examinations provide an additional level of precaution against the spread of the disease."

UAE women over the age of 45 run a higher risk of missing the warning signs of breast cancer than younger women because of the lack of education and social stigma attached to it. "Most women are even shy to examine their own breasts," laments Dr Kazim, recalling the incident of a woman patient who was to undergo a surgery. When asked on the day of surgery about her lump, she replied, "I don't know I don't want to touch my breast ." "We want women to be aware of cancer and never take any changes in their body for granted, points out the doctor, whose confidence is evident as she speaks with a glint in her eyes.

The social stigma about a woman losing her breasts to cancer makes things complex. "If you are discussing heart disease, nobody minds but for some reason breast cancer is different and this needs to change," says Dr Kazim. Current statistics show that breast cancer affects at least one in eight women but the figures are fast becoming worse and within 10 years one in three women are likely fall prey to the killer disease.

Although no official data exists on the number of women suffering from breast cancer in the UAE - much due to its diverse demographic composition - on a worldwide scale, the number of cases are definitely on the rise. "Expatriates form around 80 per cent of the country's population and some of them may be diagnosed here but treated abroad. This makes it tough to maintain a cancer registry but there are plans to set one up in the near future soon.

Despite being a committed career woman, Dr Houriya Kazim has never taken her family for granted. She married late, had babies late and feels good about the route her life has taken. But regret comes from her failure to save a school friend from breast cancer at a time when she was specialising as a breast cancer surgeon. "I was not supposed to attend her funeral, I'm a breast specialist, "she said, trying to hide her tears without success.

Dr (Ms) Houriya Kazim is Consultant General Surgeon (Breast Diseases) at Welcare Hospital, Dubai


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If you are discussing heart disease, nobody minds but for some reason breast cancer is different and this needs to change."