First Lady's Middle East Trip Focuses on Breast Cancer

Laura Bush and Robin Roberts met in the Middle East to discuss breast cancer.

Oct. 22, 2007 — -- First lady Laura Bush has visited 68 countries during her husband's presidency, but in some ways, her trip to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, may be her most urgent and personal trip yet.

Bush's trip is aimed at raising awareness in the Middle East about breast cancer — a disease both her grandmother and mother had. Neither woman died of the disease — Bush's mother is still alive and in good health — but the first lady has worked on breast cancer issues for many years.

"I feel it's very important for people in the Middle East to know that people in the United States care about health and especially women's health, because it's still embarrassing and they're fearful and shamed like we were over 25 years ago," she told "Good Morning America."

Hala Moddelmog, president of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, said there are huge hurdles to raising cancer awareness in the region.

In Saudi Arabia, 20 percent of all cancer cases are breast cancer; in the UAE, it's nearly 10 percent.

And 70 percent of breast cancer patients are diagnosed during the advanced stages of the disease — compared to just 30 percent in the West.

Working to Remove Taboo

The problem is not one of resources — the four Middle Eastern countries Bush will visit brought in $260 billion last year from oil alone.

Doctors say breast cancer still carries social stigma in the region.

"Ladies who are married are really worried about what will the effect of a diagnosis be on their husbands and families, so many of them will opt not to do a mammogram," said Omniyat Hajri, a UAE physician who treats breast cancer patients.

Many women never learn the necessity of self-breast exams and early detection — important in these Middle Eastern countries, where, on average, women get breast cancer 10 years earlier when the disease is more deadly.

But many women are working to change attitudes. In Dubai, volunteers on a pink bus give out vital information on self-exams and early diagnosis.

Breast cancer survivors have put on a fashion show, letting women know breast cancer can be conquered.

In the waning days of her husband's presidency, the first lady is taking on a more active role in diplomacy. This is her 14th solo trip overseas. She'll meet with the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, using her popularity to try to boost the image of the United States.

With tensions between the United States and Iran on the rise, the first lady said it's important to keep relations with U.S. allies in the Middle East strong.

"And we have many friends and allies here in the Middle East that we also hope will continue to work with Iran, to make sure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons," she said. "This is a country that has said they want Israel wiped off the face of the earth. I mean these are threats that the world needs to take seriously. And no one wants to see any sort of nuclear proliferation anywhere here in the Middle East."

But Bush's primary purpose on this six-day trip is to talk about breast cancer.

"I think this is a very good way for American women or the American people in general to reach out to women across Middle East," Bush said. "No matter what their circumstances are, all of us face the same health challenges."