(U.S. News) - First lady Laura Bush began her quest to raise breast cancer awareness in the Middle East on Monday with several events in this oil-rich Persian Gulf nation that highlighted the challenges of combating the disease in the region.
Breast cancer is the No. 1 killer of women in the United Arab Emirates, according to official statistics, but many succumb because the stigma surrounding the disease prevents them from seeking early detection.
In the U.S., 80 percent of women with breast cancer detect the disease in stages one or two, but the comparable figure in the UAE is only 30 percent, Mrs. Bush said in a speech at Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed hospital in the capital of Abu Dhabi.
The UAE offers free health care for its citizens and has one of the highest per capita income rates in the world, but several Emirati women with breast cancer told the first lady that many fail to uncover the disease because they fear the social repercussions. Some women are abandoned by their husbands after they're diagnosed and their daughters can have trouble marrying, the cancer survivors told Mrs. Bush.
The first lady, whose mother and grandmother suffered from breast cancer, commended the women for their bravery in discussing the issue.
"You are ambassadors for breast cancer awareness," Mrs. Bush said to the veiled women, who sat in a pink tent in the hospital lobby set up for breast cancer patients and others who want to educate themselves about the disease.
"Twenty-five years ago, American women were fearful to talk about breast cancer and therefore not aware of what they can do to protect themselves," she added.
Mrs. Bush focused exclusively on breast cancer during her visit, avoiding political issues, such as the war in Iraq and the growing confrontation with Iran that continue to preoccupy her husband, President Bush.
The audience included hospital staff and members of the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, which signed an agreement with the U.S.-based Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to develop early detection programs across the UAE.
Mrs. Bush also visited the chamber of commerce in the neighboring city of Dubai, where she enlisted the support of 11 local and international companies to educate their employees and customers about breast cancer, which is treatable if detected early enough. The program is the first of its kind in the country.
By joining the campaign to raise breast cancer awareness, the first lady said the companies had shown how "being compassionate and being profitable goes hand in hand."
On Tuesday, Mrs. Bush heads to Saudi Arabia, where she will meet King Abdullah and launch a U.S.-Saudi Arabia Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research at the King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh.