Before this year’s end, over 10,000 women will come together in Riyadh and stand shoulder to shoulder to form a record-breaking “10KSA” pink ribbon that will symbolize unity, strength, and, most importantly, an informed mind. In this exclusive interview, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, board member of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, speaks to Caterina Minthe to share the strides she is making to help save women from one of the most violent diseases that has gripped Saudi Arabia in recent years.
CATERINA MINTHE: You are one of the foremost voices in Saudi Arabia and the GCC creating awareness about breast cancer. How and why did you first become involved?
HRH PRINCESS REEMA BINT BANDAR BIN SULTAN AL SAUD: When Dr. Suad bin Amer, who is the founder of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, decided to file [in 2001] for it to be a proper charitable organization to raise funds and be more active in the community, my mother [Zahra Breast Cancer Association co-chair, Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa bint Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] asked me if I would join her as one of the founding members. I had just moved back to Saudi and I was willing to support her, but I didn’t want to be a part of building it. I had two young children and I just started working with Harvey Nichols [she is the CEO of Alfa International, which operates Harvey Nichols], so I said no.
A few days later, one of my friends, who I have known since I was 13-years-old, Sara, called me to say that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that she was moving to France because she couldn’t get the treatment she needed here in Saudi. I nearly had a heart attack. That is the moment that everything shifted for me. At the time of her diagnosis she was 30-years-old; she passed away two years ago. What I am doing is in her honor.
It’s vital to highlight the importance of that first diagnosis because getting a mammogram at 30-years-old is not at the forefront of a lot of women’s minds.
Sara first got tested because cancer does run in her family (her father also passed away from cancer) and so they were more aware and constantly looking and checking. But she had been dealing with it for two years before she told us. Initially, she kept it very private.
Providing access to health information is one of the Zahra Breast Cancer Association’s mandates.
Yes, and that is why I was drawn to it. The association aims to disseminate information on breast cancer, nationally, to all socio-economic levels—from the village to the city—and looks at all women equally. One of its greatest achievements is its outreach to the rural areas where volunteers and doctors go out and educate people about early detection and their health overall.
You mentioned that Sara went to Europe to find the treatment she required. Has Saudi Arabia’s health system since evolved for the better?
Right now, I can tell you that from a medical point of view the treatment you need is available in Saudi. It absolutely is. Where we are behind from the Western world is the post care. Community groups and research groups—a lot of people discount the value of “talk” therapy. But when you are a woman going through this kind of a disease and the treatment is so invasive, sometimes you just need to get the things that you feel off your chest.
On the subject of words, if this cancer were not “breast” cancer but “bone” cancer, would it have been so hidden in the first place?
No, not at all. It’s an uncomfortable word to say and such a sensitive subject—and, we’re a conservative community. But it is as difficult for us to talk about breast cancer as it is to talk about prostate cancer. It’s not in our nature to engage in conversation about our private parts. It’s uncomfortable anywhere, but slightly more so here. With 10KSA* we want to make this uncomfortable word a normal thing to talk about. In fact, we want to make “breast” cancer a major topic of conversation.