Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The morning began with Mrs. Laura Bush making a quick stop at the American Consulate in Dubai to meet the staff and children of the staff. The motorcade then traveled to the airport to make our way to Riyadh. After receiving the royal treatment (literally) upon landing, our visit began with the first ever screening clinic in the Kingdom.

Two issues make breast cancer especially tough for women of this region of the world: their disease presents more than a decade earlier than for American women and the culture is such that the disease is most often diagnosed at Stage 3 and 4. There is the fear of abandonment by husbands and the fear that their daughters will be seen as undesirable.

We were joined in Riyadh by Dr. Kendra Woods of MD Anderson, who is our medical partner in the Middle Eastern venture and in our Latin American venture. Her enthusiasm is boundless and she always praises Komen.

Ambassador Ford Fraker briefed us all on protocol and confirmed the incredible significance of the partnership. One of the journalists traveling with us used the term "pink diplomacy," indicating that what we were doing was beyond health and encompassed the fundamental empowerment of women.

The launch of the U.S.–Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research took place at King Fahad Medical City in a large auditorium filled mostly with men. There were several women there (covered completely and sectioned off by themselves), and we were told that even two years ago it would never have happened that men and women were together.

The ceremony was nicely done and the cameras were rolling. Both Mrs. Bush and Kendra did a lovely job of acknowledging Nancy G. Brinker's role in this historic partnership and of the tireless efforts of Erin Walsh from the Department of State. Erin is a breast cancer survivor diagnosed at a young age, and she has been a driving force behind the U. S.-Middle East Partnership. When others thought it might wane, she did not take no for an answer. She has been a real friend to Komen.

Some of you have met Dr. Samia (either in DC or Budapest), the first woman in Saudi Arabia to openly declare she had breast cancer. She is a physician, single mother of two, and diagnosed her own breast cancer. She spoke at the launch, and again, Komen was praised.

When the signing was complete and Prince Faisal and I had exchanged portfolios, the women rushed the stage to thank us. Although we couldn't see their faces, we could feel the smiles. They were so warm and so grateful.


Dubai is everything you've read about or seen on TV, most recently 60 Minutes. The man-made islands shaped like a giant palm tree and the other set of islands shaped like a map of the world are simply fascinating, as is the indoor ski mountain and the world's tallest building. It's amazing what money can buy. However, the message about breast cancer and being provided the freedom, power and knowledge to address one's own health is priceless. That's what you have given to the women of Dubai, something that can't really be purchased in any concrete sense of the word.

In Dubai, we were greeted by Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, who is Jordanian by birth and the daughter of the late King Hussein. She dresses in western clothes in public and was the only royalty to do so in the countries we visited. She is expecting her first baby and is very beautiful. Since Jordan is quite poor, Princess Haya uses her influence to get aid for Jordan.

The reception for the First Lady and Komen was held at the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the largest Chamber of Commerce in the world. Eleven companies had come together to sponsor the Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research. The three largest (exceedingly large, as in owning most of the assets in the country) companies in Dubai joined in as did several large, multinational American companies. My best contact at this event was the guy who oversees 132 countries for FedEx--he has only two counterparts worldwide and is among the top five execs at FedEx. We really hit it off, and he was so excited about Amy DiCico of FedexKinkos joining Komen's board. He had recently met her but was unaware of her bout with breast cancer just as she was planning to start a family. Bottom line: he basically said you name the country and I will help Komen.

We spent the night in a hotel that was "grand" but a little too new Vegas for my taste. They had attempted to create the old souk (market) feel but it felt more like Disney. The place didn't really matter much because the evening consisted of meetings preparing for the Saudi launch the next day and calls back to Komen.

All in all, a great October day for Komen.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I could get used to this...

This is being "in the bubble" with Mrs. Bush. Riding in her limo in the motorcade, flying on Air Force Two, and having Komen be the real "hero" of this historic trip is truly very special.

Our last activity in Abu Dhabi was straight out of "Arabian Nights" and I think we have added another tale -- there are now 1002. We were hosted by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak for a lunch beyond belief at her Sea Palace. Breast cancer gets spoken about in the UAE because she says it can be. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak is the wife of the late UAE President Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan -- the guy who decided to "invest" the oil reserves and turned UAE into one of the richest countries on the planet. She is the mother of the country and meets daily with her six sons, who "run" the Emirates. She wears a leather face mask (which looks like metal) along with her total black covering and has never met a man who is not related to her. She was charming and gracious and spoke her mind.

There were 60 or so beautiful Emirati women. All were covered but somehow glamorous. We were served seven desserts BEFORE lunch, and lunch included at least 15 dishes before we were served four more desserts. We were expected to eat a bit of each dish. We were seated with the stunningly beautiful daughters-in-law of the six sons, who watched every bite. When I try to describe the palace interior and the display of food, Versailles comes to mind.

Nancy has been to Sheikha Fatima's Sea Palace, and she paved the way with Sheikha Fatima--one legend to another. Breast cancer should be afraid.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Abu Dhabi whirlwind

My morning started with a surprise call (before my shower) asking me to receive a representative of the UAE government in my room to sign the 10-page "Memorandum of Understanding" prior to the planned ceremonial signing. He was still sitting in my room when I was supposed to be with Mrs. Bush to start the day's activities. Needless to say, this got my heart rate up. Then I was told that I would be speaking at the signing ceremony. I have two speeches in my briefing book -- one for Dubai and one for Saudi (and none for Abu Dhabi). By this time, I felt as though I was performing in a play but hadn't read the script.

But soon the real reason for being here begin. We met with 10 or so beautiful young Emirate women, who are excited about speaking out and up for themselves and other women. They were all wearing shailas and abayas with dazzling encrusted jewels. They were educated and poised to be incredible advocates. Most had traveled to the U.S. and were eager to tell Mrs. Bush that they had learned about community service in America.

The Pink Majlis came next. A majlis is a room or special place that people come together to share ideas and ask questions and just be. This was the first ever "pink" majlis. There were seven survivors who told their stories. These are exceptionally brave women who have chosen to speak about their breast cancer journeys. Their stories ranged from a middle-aged woman who married at 12 and whose husband left her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer to a young woman who has breast cancer now and just got engaged. Robin Roberts wept.

These survivors went with us to the signing ceremony between Komen and the UAE Health Authority. Since I didn't have prepared remarks (and of course, Dr. Ahmet, Dr. Ouriel, and Mrs. Bush did), I just spoke to the survivors praising their courage and telling them that Komen wouldn't stop until all women have heard the message and have access to care.

There were two more fascinating events today, but I must sign off for now. Just know you are doing good work.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Historic event

I've said this many, many times before; and I have a feeling that I will continue to say it for a long time to come: this job is a gift. To get to be a part of an historic event -- the first time a First Lady has ever visited a Gulf state -- and to be there to empower women to take charge of their own health is truly a phenomenal opportunity. When one is given a gift, the first reaction is gratitude; and the first person who comes to mind in this case is Nancy G. Brinker. Her "beyond all boundaries" vision has made this event a reality. To even imagine the US-Middle East Partnership for Breast Cancer Awareness and Research takes courage and daring. Nancy made it happen.

My gratitude continues. If not for the Komen staff and affiliate network and activists of all descriptions, I would not be here today. Here is the journey from Dallas to Chicago to London to Abu Dhabi. There are several Komen staff who worked very, very hard to get me ready for this trip--from travel to speeches to clothes to MOUs to everything imaginable. You know who you are.

I love this idea of health diplomacy. For those of you who have been at this for years and years, and have helped to change the culture of breast cancer in the U.S., I hope you will take pride in Komen's role with women who face tremendous cultural barriers but are willing to start the journey for themselves and others.

I will share the highlights of the trip with you as they occur. The first stop is Abu Dhabi, then Dubai, Riyadhi, and finally Jeddah. I have read my speeches and plan to stick to the script for once.

I will try to make you proud.