‘No shame in being sick’: Arab journalist fights breast cancer, creates awareness campaign along the way

Jocelyne Elia in Arab News’ London office on Thursday, October 31. (AN)
Updated 01 November 2019

‘No shame in being sick’: Arab journalist fights breast cancer, creates awareness campaign along the way

  • Having been diagnosed with breast cancer in May this year, the journalist is helping to remove the stigma and fear surrounding the disease in the Arab world

LONDON: London-based Lebanese journalist Jocelyne Elia underwent treatment for breast cancer this year, and is now raising awareness of the illness in the Middle East. She is a television presenter, and the food and travel editor for Arab News’ sister publication Asharq Al-Awsat. 

To wrap up Arab News’ campaign to highlight Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to Elia about the importance of Arab women checking their breasts for irregularities and ensuring that they make an appointment with a doctor if they have any concerns. She described how, despite Arab women being highly educated, there is still a stigma attached to the disease in the Middle East, and a shroud of fear surrounding it. She also explained how positivity, determination, and her loved ones helped her to fight the disease.

Q
How did you discover that you had breast cancer?

A
 I discovered a small lump — around one centimeter — on my breast in May 2019 while I was travelling. I had it checked as soon as I got back to London, around a week later, at the London Breast Clinic, where they had an ultrasound doctor, a mammography doctor and a surgeon on-site, which was very lucky. They all saw me at the same time.
I didn’t find out whether I had breast cancer straight away, but the doctors highlighted three different issues with my breast. One of the issues worried my surgeon — Simon Marsh — and so he took a biopsy. One week later, I got the result that confirmed I had cancer. I discovered I had stage one, grade two breast cancer on May 17, 2019.
I wasn’t really checking myself when I found the lump. I happened to pass my hand through my clothing and felt that there was something unnatural there. I really encourage women, especially in the Arab world to check their breasts for lumps and thickenings. If the lump is superficial, it is easy to feel.
I also strongly recommend women, especially from the Middle East, to have themselves examined even if they have not found anything abnormal on their breasts. Not every lump is cancerous, but early detection increases the chances of being cured. 

Q
Do you think there is a stigma surrounding breast cancer in the Middle East?

A
 Definitely. Women, especially those from the Middle East, fear cancer and that’s why they leave it late to be examined. While undergoing treatment at a clinic in London’s Harley Street — which is known for its large number of private specialists in medicine and surgery — I met other Arab women, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We used to have our treatments at the same time, and because I speak Arabic, I used to talk to them. I was very sad to find out that a lot of young women sought treatment at stage three and four, which is really unacceptable. If breast cancer is discovered early, it can be curable, as long as it hasn’t travelled to other parts of the body and as long as it is still inside the breast and hasn’t gone through the axilla.  Many women in the Middle East are too scared to check themselves. Even if they check and find something, they don’t get themselves examined. Some have an examination done but when they are told that they have cancer, they get really scared about what will happen and leave it until it’s too late to seek treatment. If the cancer develops to stage four, it can kill them.
Arab women are highly educated and therefore this behavior has nothing to do with ignorance. The stigma surrounding cancer, and just the word cancer, scares many people. What I am trying to do now is to change this stigma and tell everyone that there is nothing to be scared of. Cancer is cancer. And it’s like any other problem that you may face in your life.
One in seven women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. After my experience, I’d like to say there is nothing to be scared of, but if you discover that you have it, you have to do the right thing and listen to the doctor, have all the required check-ups, eat well, undergo treatment, and take the necessary medication afterwards.




Elia urged women in the Arab world to have regular examinations. “Early detection increases the chances of being cured,” she said.  (Shutterstock)

Q
What do you think of Arab News’ campaign to raise breast cancer awareness?

A
 I’m so proud of it as a Saudi publication raising awareness about breast cancer. There is a large number of women suffering from breast cancer in the Middle East, with the highest number in Lebanon. But lots of people still don’t know much about it, even though it is so common. I am therefore really happy to see Arab News and other Arab media raise awareness. Personally, too, I’m very happy to be given the chance to talk about it because there is no shame in being sick.

Q
Aside from the medical side of things, what else was important to you during your treatment for cancer?

A
 The most important thing is to surround yourself with good people. My friends and family don’t understand how good they were to me; they don’t know how much strength they gave me. They supported me out of love and care. For cancer patients, it’s very important that they surround themselves with positive people — people who know how to ask how they are doing.
Sadly, in the Arab world, people don’t know how to deal with a cancer patient. It is also a problem in the West too, but as someone who comes from the Middle East and does not have a history of cancer in the family, it was a new experience for me. I noticed that if you don’t surround yourself with positive, good and caring people, you can become depressed. Cancer is a mental illness as well as a physical one.

Q
What kind of treatment did you undergo?

A
 The first treatment I had was a lumpectomy on May 30, and it was successful. I had the operation less than two weeks after I discovered I had cancer. I then underwent radiotherapy, and after that I started taking medication called tamoxifen which blocks the growth of breast cancer and reduces the risk of it recurring. It has a lot of side effects, but you have to be positive in these kinds of situations.
I will be examined on November 21, when I’ll have a mammogram and ultrasound and be informed whether I am cancer-free. 

Q
What advice would you give to anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or is undergoing treatment?

A
 Don’t lose touch with the outside world. Cancer puts you in a bubble. Even your vocabulary changes; you start using words that you’ve never used before and you become more enlightened about medical issues. You must educate yourself.
Working really helped me. It really helped me keep my mind off of things. My profession is a creative one and my mind was always working. And even though I could only go to work once or twice a week, it was refreshing to see my friends and my colleagues, and to discuss something other than illness and breast cancer. 
However, everyone is different and undergoing treatment is very difficult. Sometimes you can become very tired and find it difficult to get out of bed. You have to know your limits.


Rocket men: Star Steve Carrell and creator Greg Daniels talk ‘Space Force’

Steve Carrell (front) plays General Mark Naird in 'Space Force.' (Netflix)
Updated 31 May 2020

Rocket men: Star Steve Carrell and creator Greg Daniels talk ‘Space Force’

  • Daniels and Carrell reunite for the first time since the success of ‘The Office’ in new comedy about the US military’s latest division
DUBAI: Things are very different from the time that Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell first got together. In 2005, Carrell was auditioning in front of Daniels to see whether he could fill the shoes of Ricky Gervais for an American remake of Gervais’ UK hit “The Office.” Daniels had already written for, or created, classic series such as “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill,” but Carrell was still a respected supporting player, unproven as a leading man. Fifteen years later, Carrell is one of the most venerated leads of his generation in film and television — due in no small part to the magic that the two created on the small screen. What would bring them back together? As it turns out, all it took was two words — “Space Force.” When US President Donald Trump announced his intention to establish a new division of the American military in 2018, Carrell couldn’t get the name out of his head. He called up his old collaborator Daniels to talk about it. “There was no show. There was no idea. It was really based on nothing except a name that made everybody laugh,” says Carrell. The two met up at Carrell’s house to brainstorm whether those two words would be enough for a TV show. What interested them most was imagining the man who would have to lead it. They came up with General Mark Naird — a career Air Force man who was hardened and serious about everything that he did, nothing like Michael Scott in “The Office.” “We definitely did not want to repeat Michael Scott at all. It’s been at least 12 years since Steve played Michael Scott, and he just physically doesn't look the same. The haircut's different, the mannerisms are different. Michael Scott is an iconic character, but I actually think General Mark Naird has got more Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” in him than Michael Scott,” says Daniels. “Mark’s definitely a stronger character, more used to command, more capable than Michael Scott ever was. His issues are different. Michael would do anything to please others, he would (bend) in the wind in any direction. Mark is very inflexible and it’s hard to change his mind about anything. They're very different people.” “Space Force,” which launched on Netflix May 29, is a deliberate departure from “The Office” in many ways. It’s not a mockumentary — a style that served Daniels so well in both “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” It’s not about mostly incompetent people who don’t care about their jobs — in fact, it’s the opposite. But like “The Office,” it relies on a strong supporting cast — headlined by Academy Award-nominee John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz and Lisa Kudrow — and is ultimately about what those people create together, rather than just one man’s goals. The comedy, then, comes in watching fiercely smart and talented people try to do something that no one has ever done before: move the military into space. “Like many people in the world — and (this is) something I think most people can relate to on even a day-to-day basis, even people who are very successful in their field — you just may not be qualified to do what's being asked of you. There is a lot of comedy in that, because there's also a lot of pain in that. Pain and comedy tend to go hand in hand, or at least hand in glove,” says Malkovich, who plays Dr. Adrian Mallory. In fact, “Space Force” — perhaps contrary to expectations — is a show that affirms the creation of this new military division much more than it discourages it. While it finds much to satirize, it takes the nobility of its characters and what they are trying to achieve seriously, despite the silliness of its premise, ultimately justifying — almost romanticizing — the division’s goals. “(Naird) makes really good decisions because he understands people and he's a good leader, but he also sometimes steps in it because he oversimplifies things and he doesn't fully understand what's going on around him. He has to try and figure out who's giving him good advice and who isn't. But we gave him a good value system at his center. We wanted to make sure that we were being accurate and more than respectful — I would say complimentary — of the military virtues that Mark Naird holds,” says Daniels.