Volunteering with 10KSA: Breast Cancer Awareness

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.

As I was leaving North America, Breast Cancer Awareness events were in full swing all over Canada and the USA. I was really hoping that somehow, I could initiate or participate in a some type of event or activity to raise awareness in Saudi Arabia and have a positive impact on women’s lives.

In my previous year in Saudi, I’d seen some of the devastation of breast cancer among the women of Saudi, and in my experience, it seemed to hit so many of them and at such a young age as well. (Maybe that’s just because I work in a large chemotherapy clinic so my exposure to women with breast cancer will be quite high given the volume of patients we see on a daily basis.)

However, the sad truth is that Saudi Arabia, like all countries in the world, has significantly high rates of breast cancer. Unfortunately, awareness is not as high as it is in the Western World. Many women go undiagnosed for years until the symptoms of advanced disease bring them into the hospital for treatment which ultimately results in reduced survival and less positive treatment outcomes, as well as increased pain and suffering.

Many women also lack the education and the awareness to monitor their health and perform monthly self exams to monitor their health, or the awareness that a mother or sister or auntie with breast cancer could indicate a significantly increased risk that they themselves might develop breast cancer. They’re not educated that lifestyle factors such as a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits and unhealthy body weights increase their risk of developing cancer in general but also breast cancer. Many women also lack the access to resources such as family physicians, or proper medical care to monitor their health, assess and diagnose also.

So, my wish actually came true. The opportunity to volunteer for a large breast cancer awareness event came my way only a week or so after returning to Saudi, through a friend of a friend, who was organizing and recruiting all the volunteers for the event.

The event was being developed by an organization called 10KSA, a subdivision of a greater organization called Alf Khair, started by Princess Reema bint Bandar. The goal of Alf Khair is to empower the women and youth of Saudi Arabia, and to make the people of Saudi Arabia, the best they can be, and the countries greatest natural resource. 10KSA is a holistic health initiative, and the primary focus is raising health awareness throughout Saudi and the world. This would be 10KSA’s first event and breast cancer was the focus.

The event itself would be held in December and the goal was not only to focus on breast cancer, but also holistic health in general. And the highlight of the day was to be the formation of the world’s largest human health awareness ribbon. The current world record was held by India, but 10KSA was hoping to break that record and get 10,000 women together to form the new largest ribbon. The event would also focus on various other ways to promote health and wellness also though.

As it was to be a very large event, thousands of volunteers were required to run the event. I was hoping I could do some education on breast cancer, but unfortunately those roles were taken by the various hospitals and organizations holding awareness booths at the event.

I ended up joining the team of first Aid volunteers, originally as just one of the volunteers, but as I wanted to get more and more involved in the activity, it escalated into then becoming head volunteer of the First Aid team and planning/coordinating the First Aid Plan for the event as well as train the First Aid volunteers.

I still wanted to do more… so my friend suggested I help recruit volunteers and do some of the orientation sessions for them also. So I got to meet so many amazing Saudi women through this. And it was so fun to tell them about the event and share my passion for this with them… because then they would also get really excited and happy about this opportunity… it was just so inspiring to see them all coming together!

Altogether I think we recruited well over 3000 volutunteers. My first aid group made up a very small portion of this, roughly 30 volunteers in total, plus the team of doctors and nurses from the university hospital.

The weeks and months leading up to the event were ridiculously busy. I was working full time as well as trying to participate as much as possible in training sessions and planning for the event. Many evenings were spent running off after work to an office somewhere to orientate the volunteers to the purpose of the organization and the event and determine their role at the event, as well as assisting with task specific training once the women had been selected for various roles. But I thrived on every minute of it and loved the opportunity to interact with Saudi women who were excited to volunteer and participate in this potentially historical event…

Until this point, my interactions with Saudi women had been restricted largely to work, but this was a huge opportunity to work with them outside of work… to inspire them and be inspired by them… to work together to create something amazing for the women of Saudi… to feel strong and empowered together… It was beautiful!

The planning and promotion of the event lasted for a couple months… with a woman flying to Australia in a small plane even carrying the 10KSA logo on her plane when she stopped briefly at the Riyadh airport. The symbolic 10KSA Wings of Hope could be found at various venues throughout Riyadh… including shopping centers… and even at King Faisal Specialist Hospital for a few days!

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There was even a theme song created for the event which went on to win an award at the California International Shorts Festival as the best music video!

As the day to the event grew closer, my days filled up with work and training volunteers, and mostly… figuring out how first aid was going to work at the event and developing the first aid training program for the first aid volunteers!

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I met Princess Reema, a beautiful person with a vision for the people and especially the women of her country… I was so inspired by her and her goals and commitment to raising awareness and empowering women!

In general, being a part of the event and all the planning was just an incredible experience. I met so many women who inspired me. And to be part of such a major event organized by women for women… my heart was so full and happy!!

And in the final days leading up to the event, I made many trips to Princess Noura University, the largest all-female university in the world, so large it even had it’s own train system inside, to the sports complex where the event would be held. There was so much organizing to do yet… determining how first aid services would be available throughout a venue that large was quite a challenge. I met with the emergency doctors at the Princess Noura University Hospital to plan how we would provide support throughout the venue the day of the event… Fortunately, we would have a couple of doctors and a team of nurses from the university hospital to offer support (and supplies!!!) the day of the event, as my first aid volunteers would really only be providing very basic care in case of any emergency.

It was really  amazing to see the sports complex transformed into a health and wellness event, with amazing displays including beautiful photographs from Saudi and artwork by Saudi women… and an incredible Active center for promoting fitness and active lifestyles…

And of course, the massive stadium where the ribbon formation would happen. Princess Reema went up in a big lift up over the field to see what the view would be like for the photographers who would be photographing this historical event…

And the last day before the event, all the head volunteers and main organizers and supporters of the event, me at the complex for a last run through… and an amazing family photo.. it was so incredible for me to be there, with all those women, women dedicated to making a change in Saudi… I felt so blessed!!IMG_5847And that’s about it… bring on the big day!!!

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