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The Pink Caravan has become a symbol of the UAE's fight against cancer Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: Sharjah-based Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP) has since its inception in 1999 supported more than 5,600 cancer patients and their families, with almost 400 patients treated in 2020 alone, said its chairperson.

Sawsan Jafar, Chairperson, Board of Directors, FOCP, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview that the organisation has “delivered moral, physical and financial support” to more than 5,629 cancer patients and their families, “irrespective of their nationality, gender, age, religion or ethnicity”.

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Sawsan Jafar, Chairperson, Board of Directors, FOCP Image Credit: Supplied

Last year, FOCP supported the treatment of 399 patients, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, medicines, and other test and expenses, she said.

Pink Caravan

Moreover, its flagship annual Pink Caravan Ride across the UAE, which offers free early breast cancer detection examinations, since it was established in 2011, has covered 75,000 people, leading to the detection and timely intervention of 80 positive female cases as well as one male case, Jafar added.

The latest 10th edition in 2020 of the ride brought together the largest number of volunteers and medical professionals, and delivered free medical check-ups and breast cancer screenings to 11,007 people in the UAE.

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Friends of Cancer Patient's joy cart activation Image Credit: Supplied

What is FOCP?

FOCP is a non-profit society founded in 1999 under the directives and patronage of Shaikha Jawaher Bint Mohammad Al Qasimi, Wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Shaikh Dr Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.

Committed to care

“We are committed to helping cancer patients and their families get through the long and arduous journey of cancer treatment … FOCP also promotes and supports the rights and needs of people affected by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by advocating on both the national, regional and global level,” Jafar said.

A core component of FOCP’s work is also to raise awareness. “Spreading awareness is at the heart of FOCP’s mission. With this in mind, we have launched a number initiatives with regional and international scope to benchmark best practices. With a dynamic team that embraces hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life, FOCP embraces multi-sectorial collaborations with international and regional organisations.”

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FOCP's bike ride initiative Image Credit: Supplied

These organisations include the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) — Switzerland, American Cancer Society, and the Gulf Federation for Cancer Control.

FOCP also organised several key events to tackle challenges facing global health.

In partnership with the Non-Communicable Disease Alliance (NCDA), FOCP convened the 3rd Global NCD Alliance Forum in February 2020 in Sharjah, which saw the participation of 400 delegates from over 80 countries. 53 national and regional alliances were represented at the Forum.

During the Global Cancer Awareness Month, in October 2020, private and government sector organisations across the UAE made use of FOCP’s permanent mobile medical clinic by signing up to the Pink Caravan Corporate Wellness Day, which offered awareness lectures as well as screenings. There were 36 activations last year, with 1,066 screenings, including 280 mammograms, taking place in October.

“More recently one of our most successful collaborations was hosting the global Cervical Cancer Forum virtually during January. Following the success of the first Cervical Cancer Forum held in 2019, FOCP again partnered with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to host the event virtually from Sharjah, in January this year,” Jafar said.

Gulf campaign

FOCP was also at the forefront of organising a series of activities in conjunction with the 6th edition of the GCC Cancer Awareness Campaign, which is organised annually by the Gulf Cancer Centre in Saudi Arabia in collaboration with Gulf Federation for Cancer Control, based in Kuwait. FOCP’s participation in the campaign this year extended throughout February with virtual workshops in collaboration with many partners including the University of Sharjah, apart from sharing awareness messages daily on its social media platforms for the benefit of the community.

Marking World Cancer Day on February 4, FOCP partnered with UICC to felicitate the nurses, doctors, researchers, volunteers, advocates and other caregivers in oncology from around the country, “who were instrumental in tiding us through the COVID-19 pandemic throughout last year. Their inspiring stories were showcased on the occasion in testimonials and articles on our website”.

‘I Deserve a Life’

Meanwhile, FOCP’s zakat initiative, ‘I Deserve a Life’, which recently concluded its 2021 edition, has been one of its most successful campaigns. Since 2013, FOCP’s zakat campaign has involved community members, government bodies and private organisations to collectively raise Dh8.9 million for supporting the treatment of 1,666 cancer patients in the UAE.

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FOCP’s zakat initiative, ‘I Deserve a Life’, recently concluded its 2021 edition Image Credit: Supplied

FOCP also partners with Relay for Life (RFL), the world’s largest peer-to-peer fund-raising movement dedicated to saving lives from cancer. “We recently announced FOCP’s the Relay for Life Virtual Summer Challenge, which runs from August 4 to 31. It is aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle and community engagement while raising funds for the cause. We have so far hosted seven challenges, which saw the participation of 2,091 persons who collectively took 1.5 billion steps. We also held 27 awareness webinars in Arabic, English and Urdu on our social media platforms last year, which attracted 1,169 attendees. Our social media activations attracted 92,179 followers and were viewed 357,343 times,” she said.

Working through COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the march of FOCP in its mission. “We had just successfully concluded the 10th edition of the Pink Caravan awareness ride across the country over a period of 20 days, when the COVID-19 outbreak started spreading. We exercised extreme caution and implemented world-class health and safety measures throughout the preparation and execution of this large-scale public drive as it involved a large number of people in situations that could have strained the Caravan’s planning and response resources. In spite of these challenges, the 10th edition was a huge success.”

Combating the pandemic

Jafar added: “We immediately stepped up efforts to provide much-needed and credible information about the risks and vulnerability to COVID-19 particularly faced by cancer patients, addressing their caregivers and the wider community. Our awareness efforts included webinars, social media drives and press campaigns explaining how to prepare cancer patients undergoing treatment for COVID-19 as they belong to the category of those who are at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases due to their low immunity.”

She said FOCP’s work never stopped during the pandemic and movement restrictions in 2020. “With our dedicated team we made sure that patients’ needs were being met, and that the community are always well informed about the latest development and that FOCP advocacy efforts still continued.

“The agility, resourcefulness and leadership demonstrated by FOCP was internationally recognised recently with two prestigious Global Good Governance (3G) Awards 2021 for the third time since 2017, winning in two categories, the ‘3G Leadership Award for Social Sector & Philanthropy’ and ‘3G Best Community Service Award’.”

Demolishing myths

Over the past 10 years, the Pink Caravan has managed to change the community’s perception of breast cancer. It has also helped demolish the myth that only women are susceptible to it. Thanks to awareness raised by the Pink Caravan Ride, 13,658 men have been screened so far. The 2020 edition tested a record 2,761 men.

Timely follow-ups

The Pink Caravan medical team also conducts timely follow-up tests on women who have undergone free mammogram screenings at its clinics, as mandated under the National Guidelines for Breast Cancer Screening and Diagnosis, which stipulates that women aged 40-69 years should undergo mammogram screening every two years.

Ameera Fund

The Ameera Fund was instituted in the memory of late Ameera BinKaram in 2016 in recognition of her contribution to humanitarian work. It is mandated to collect funds to support treatment for cancer patients worldwide and operates under the umbrella of The Big Heart Foundation, a Sharjah-based global humanitarian dedicated to helping refugees and people in need worldwide, and FOCP. Projects and initiatives approved by the fund are implemented by FOCP.

The fund has so far disbursed aid worth “several million dirhams” to fund programmes that alleviate the suffering of cancer patients globally.

“It would have been impossible to achieve all that FOCP has done in this relatively short span of time without the unstinting and generous support of our partners and sponsors from the private, public, and non-profit sectors. We are indebted to all our collaborators who have contributed so much to further the noble cause of awareness and as a result helped relieve the pain of many cancer sufferers,” Jafar said. “Indeed, it was their support that enabled FOCP to increase its 2021 annual budget by 17 per cent to help bring more patients within its fold of care this year.”

FOCP now utilises an online platform for fund-raising and donors can join its programmes even from outside the UAE.