RIYADH: Three Saudi sisters who took drastic steps to avoid developing breast cancer are leading a lifesaving awareness campaign to help women throughout the Kingdom.
Reem, Rabab and Rana Hajjar, known as the Saudi Previvors, all underwent a double mastectomy after being found to be carriers of an aggressive cancer-causing gene.
Their mother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29, and the sisters agreed to early blood tests which detected a high risk of them also falling victim to the killer disease.
Now, partly through an online help platform, the siblings are leading the way on women’s health issues, driving community efforts to promote awareness and teaching Saudis about the importance of self-examination, breastfeeding, physical activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Their Saudi Previvors group aims to educate the public on health and wellbeing by focusing on ways to prevent the onset of breast cancer by taking proactive steps to lower risk factors.
The BRCA gene blood test, which the sisters took, is done to determine if a patient has changes or mutations in their DNA that increase the risk of breast cancer in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
With a high incidence rate of breast cancer in the Kingdom, the Hajjar sisters hope to save lives by sharing their experience and knowledge with other women.
As well as their mother, other women in their family had also been diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age. When their mother’s cancer returned in 2015, doctors strongly advised the sisters to be tested. They were all found to carry the gene and decided to undergo a double mastectomy to remove breast tissue. It was at this time that they set up their group on Facebook.
“We started a page on Instagram and on Facebook. If you take proactive steps to prevent this from happening, you become a previvor. We are an open book, and many physicians refer patients to us for support,” said the youngest of the sisters, 31-year-old Rana. “We hope our story can influence others to take these steps.”
Awareness events, such as those happening in October for breast cancer, are an important way for individuals and families to learn about issues that affect their health. Simple adjustments to lifestyles can be enough to help limit the risk of developing life-threatening diseases and illnesses.
By taking proactive steps to prevent cancer from occurring, the sisters consider themselves to be “previvors” rather than “survivors” of the disease, hence the name for their group.
“We provide full support — physically, emotionally and mentally, by being positive and sharing our story. We believe that if a woman is brave enough to face this, it’s better than living in fear of the unknown,” said Rabab, 35.
Using the anonymity of the internet has helped many Saudi women to overcome the embarrassment, shame or fear that had previously held them back from asking questions.
Through their group, the sisters are able to help women work through their experience, explain about taking the blood test, and how to physically and emotionally manage results and procedures.
Reem, 36, the eldest of the three, said: “Love yourself unconditionally, find the strength within you, take the step … our motto in the campaign is ‘your femininity is in your strength.’”