The Pink Caravan gets under way at the Sharjah Equestrian and Racing Club on Tuesday. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: Whenever the Pink Caravan rides across the country, the banner of hope and health empowerment flies high in the nearest and farthest corners of the UAE.

The pan-UAE ride by volunteers, who have been championing breast cancer awareness since 2011, has so far screened more than 41,000 men and women for breast cancer. Of these, 33 cases have been confirmed positive for breast cancer and were handled for treatment by the Pink Caravan organisers.

“We’re promoting health and wellness. We’re not talking about illness as much as we’re talking about the wellness of the woman [or man] because this is where empowerment comes in,” Dr Sawsan Al Madhi, Head of the Pink Caravan Medical and Awareness Committee, told Gulf News.

“People need to understand that, in a way, they are responsible for their health. That’s the whole essence of health empowerment. And this is what we teach in Pink Caravan,” she added.

Around the world, one in eight women could develop breast cancer in their lifetime. In the UAE, figures on a nationwide breast cancer incidence are not definitive, although it ranked third in all cancer-related deaths in both genders in Abu Dhabi in 2014. A nationwide cancer registry is in the pipeline.

Pink Caravan’s six years of hard work, covering more than 1,440km across the country, has broken what used to be barriers in breast cancer screening. If breast cancer was a taboo in the past, residents, even in a conservative Arab society, are changing their minds about breast cancer now.

Pink Caravan has achieved this by enhancing the typical clinical set-up and adding with it various social components — support from breast cancer survivors, detailed and more personal educational approaches, and more patient-friendly screenings and interactions.

Add to this is the fact that the caravan proactively brings its own medical teams and mobile medical units directly to the people, not the other way around.

“In the beginning, people actually thought we were crazy when we started floating the idea of the Pink Caravan. People said, ‘No, it’s not gonna work. It’s too big to happen.’”

But it did.

And residents have grown fond of their equine visitors year after year.

“Every year, people, especially in the far-flung areas, really wait for us. They tell us they want to do the screening or the clinical examination, or the mammogram test with us. They know we listen to them just as they listen to us. It’s now becoming more of a friendly relation rather than us just being service providers,” Dr Al Madhi said.

“People are receptive when they are challenged, in a way,” she added. “So it’s not really a passive effort [wherein] I’m providing something and you as a community are not engaging [with it]. This is the recipe why Pink Caravan has been a success: there’s something for everyone. The more the community is engaged, the more the momentum [created] and the more successful Pink Caravan is in delivering the message.”

Despite the successful strides the caravan has taken through six years, road blocks exist.

“Although we are providing a free service for the community, it’s not free for us. We have to literally pay for the services, and this is where the generous donations of our sponsors, partners, and even individuals, help sustain [our efforts],” Dr Al Madhi said.

Breast cancer screenings typically cost between Dh250 and Dh1,000. The free services the Pink Caravan has provided over the years to thousands of people means they have saved Dh24 million in total of the costs that would otherwise have to be borne by people.

“For us to be able to provide one clinical breast examination or mammogram or ultrasound for free costs money. This is why we want to focus more on the fund-raising aspect of the Pink Caravan.”


Cancer incidence in Abu Dhabi

15.9% of all cancer cases among men and women are breast cancer.

44% of cancer cases diagnosed in women are breast cancer.

170 women are diagnosed annually.

11.6% of cancer deaths in Abu Dhabi are from breast cancer (leading cause of cancer death in women).

Source: Health Authority Abu Dhabi, as reported by Gulf News in October 2016