Fight Like a Girl: Saudi Women Tackle Everest to Advance Breast Cancer Awareness

Published: May 18, 2012

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Emily J. Weinzetl | SUSRIS

One of the climbers nailed a "Fight Like a Girl" shirt on the wall of a cafe in Namche Bazaar, a common tradition for Mount Everest Base Camp trekkers. (Photo: A Woman's Journey Facebook Page)

To the ten Saudi women attempting a punishing ascent to a major milestone on the world’s highest peak, the dangers of reaching the Mount Everest base camp are no match for their cause. As a part of an ever-growing effort in Saudi Arabia, the campaign, “A Woman’s Journey: Destination Mount Everest,” intends to raise awareness of breast cancer among Saudi Arabian women to an altitude of over 17,000 feet on the slope of the 29,029 feet (8,848 m) giant.

Headed by Zahra Breast Cancer Association founder Princess Reema Bint Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud, the climb is one of the association’s many efforts throughout the last few years to raise cancer awareness among Saudi women. In a groundbreaking efforts in the fight against breast cancer in the Kingdom, the “Pink Ribbon” campaign in October 2010 set the world record for largest human awareness ribbon with over 10,000 participants.

Now, less than two years later, Princess Reema is among the women undertaking the dangers of Everest to further promote awareness. Accompanying her are fellow female climbers Jude Al-Aitani, Asma Al-Ghalib, Mashael Alhegelan, Mona Shahab, Noura Bouzo, Raha Al-Moharrak, Lina Almaeena, Samaher Mously, Hatun Madani, Alya Al-Sa’ad, and Hasna’a Mokhtar. Either climbing for friends and family affected by the disease, or survivors themselves, each woman undertaking Everest embarks on the adventure for all Saudi women to prove nothing is impossible. To this group, ascending to the Everest base camp demonstrates to Saudi women the importance of physical fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle, which can help prevent breast cancer.

Breast Cancer: A Real Threat Among Saudi Women

Saudi Gazette reporter and Destination Mount Everest climber Hasna’a Mokhtar said, “Becoming and staying fit is no guarantee that any woman will not get breast cancer, but it does appear to significantly decrease the risk.”

A University of South Carolina study on cardiorespiratory fitness stated, “in women ages 20-83, women with the highest levels of fitness were 55 percent less likely to die of breast cancer.” The study revealed further that moderate levels of fitness maintain a 33 percent decrease of mortality in breast cancer, while those women with the lowest levels of fitness have the highest rate of mortality in age-adjusted breast cancer.

“When it comes to breast cancer risk, being physically fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle really does matter. This is the message we would like to send to all women,” Mokhtar said.

Increasing physical fitness remains only one component of combating the disease, however. One of the largest determinants of successfully beating breast cancer is early detection, especially in Saudi women. An element of the Destination Mount Everest campaign is to promote early detection since developing countries have the highest numbers of breast cancer diagnosed in late stages, according to the Saudi Ministry of Health. With 50 to 60 percent of all cases diagnosed at a later stage, at 8,000 annual discoveries, early detection becomes a monumental priority.

Routine checkups and self-awareness are some of the best techniques for early detection according to Dr. Muna Baslaim, a breast surgeon at King Fahd General Hospital. “Women aged 40 and above should have an annual mammogram screening,” Baslaim told Arab News. “Women in their 20’s and 30’s should be aware of their health and how their breasts feel so they can seek medical advice early.”

Taking on Everest: Respecting the Elements

While the climb to the Mount Everest base camp brings attention to the real life statistics of breast among Saudi women, the ascent itself is more than facts and figures. “By taking this journey, we are saying Mount Everest can be climbed by your average person,” climber Mashael Alhegelan said. “It is only as scary as you make it, and one step at a time will get you to your goal and you can overcome the obstacle.”

Everest presents several treacherous challenges like deep, hidden crevasses, potential and unpredictable avalanches, violent winds, subzero temperatures, in addition to extremely low oxygen levels, and has claimed over 200 lives since 1922.

To prepare for the endeavor, the women began rigorous training months before making the climb scheduled for May 7. “We all started training heavily in February three months prior to the climb,” Mokhtar said. “I joined a boot camp. Others trained with fitness coaches. We have had to submit weekly reports to monitor our progress.”

The physical requirements to climb even to the base camp of Mount Everest are demanding at minimum. Despite the meticulousness in preparing for the physical demands of the journey, a May 14 post on the Destination Mount Everest Facebook page noted one of the climbers sustained an ankle injury while another suffered high altitude sickness. Despite hindrances, the two climbers still attempted to reach the base camp but were sent back to the main city of Lukla, Nepal, attended by a film crew.

Saudi Arabian Conquerors: An Elite Group of Adventurers

"A Woman's Journey: Destination Mount Everest" (Photo: Facebook Page)

The Destination Mount Everest campaign earns its place among other landmark odysseys for Saudi Arabians alongside the successful “The Last Degree” expedition to the South Pole in December 2010. Waleed Zahid and his two sons, Mohamed and Haytham, became the first Saudi team to complete the milestone expedition. The South Pole and Everest have similarly harsh environments complete with biting wind and severely thin oxygen levels, which required both teams to take pre-expedition training and preparations very seriously. On the last stretch of the expedition, Mohamed said, “There is no margin for error. The cold can freeze you, the sun can burn you, the wind can bite you, and the monotony can wear you down.”

Even though the commanding nature of the Antarctic environment slowed the completion of “The Last Degree” expedition by a number of days, Mohamed notes the worthwhile struggle to accomplish such an amazing goal. “At the day’s end, I felt a tremendous reward and the paying off of the planning, training, and self-discipline and tedious treks. It was emotionally magnificent.”

The Saudi Arabian nation can take great pride in the bravery of its citizens, but the efforts of the women of the Destination Mount Everest campaign make them more than adventurous mountain conquerors. To them, a greater battle is at hand.

Reaching the Top: Overcoming the Obstacles

Early morning on May 14, The Destination Mount Everest Facebook page posted confirmation that the group had reached the base camp summit at 17,519 feet (5,340 meters). The confirmation was received late due to communication difficulties, and it has also been verified the women have begun their descent and the trek home to Saudi Arabia, where they are scheduled to arrive May 21.

With breast cancer constituting 18 percent of all cancers found in Saudi women, the need for awareness is growing. Princess Reema had pledged during the “Pink Ribbon” campaign to the Kingdom that breast cancer would no longer go unchallenged, stating, “Ignorance is no longer an excuse, and no woman should be allowed to be left to suffer in silence.” As a part of the fight against breast cancer, the expedition to the base camp of Everest is only the beginning to promoting the healthy lifestyles, physical wellness, self-awareness, and the dedication to routine detections needed for Saudi women to wage war with breast cancer.

“This campaign not only builds awareness but helps us achieve our vision of having healthier and cancer-free Saudi women,” Princess Reema said. “I am honored and proud to lend my voice to this collective group effort.”

Ed. Note: According to the “A Women’s Journey – Destination Mount Everest” Facebook page, the climbers have made it back down to Lukla and were to be heading to Kathmandu today, “officially ending the Everest trek. All are reported in good health and will rest in Kathmandu before returning to Saudi Arabia in a few days. Well done!

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Emily J. Weinzetl is a staff writer at the SUSRIS Project.

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