Ever since my high school literature classes I have been fascinated by stories of female warriors. First were the Greek myths of brave Amazonian women saving their communities, then, during my university years, I studied ancient texts featuring fighters from across times and religions, such as Khawlah bint al-Azwar, the legendary female commander who led a group of women against the Byzantine army. Who would have guessed that later on in life I would meet a real warrior, who wears her scars like medals, and who fights not against injustice or inequality, but battles to save so many here in Oman from one of the most feared diseases – cancer.
When I first arrived in the Sultanate, I came across the Oman Cancer Association online and was curious about the remarkable woman at the helm of it, Yuthar Al Rawahy. But it was the respect and awe in the voices of the nurses who talked about her positive attitude and amazing achievements during one of my visits to the Royal Hospital, that made my desire to meet this incredible woman even stronger. There is a Buddist saying that sometimes in life there can be sixteen reasons which prevent you from achieving something, and no matter what you do, until these are all resolved, you cannot achieve what you desire. I believe that sixteen reasons were preventing me from meeting Ms Yuthar, until they were finally resolved in the writing of this article.
Back in the early 2000s, while receiving treatment for her third cancer, Mrs Yuthar Al-Rawahy, made a promise to herself that if she were to survive, she would dedicate her life to developing a patient advocacy group in Oman. And that is exactly what she did together with a few other survivors. They discussed early detection, as well as how to break the social taboo of cancer – a disease usually only whispered about when requesting prayers for a recovery. Two years on from the first meeting, the first patient advocacy group in Oman had been officially registered, and for the past 18 years, the organisation’s list of achievements has all been about saving lives. One of the initiatives, a mobile mammography unit which travels to remote areas, has screened more than 19,000 women since its launch. To understand the ripple effect this work has, speak to the Omani doctors who see patients from rural areas with advanced stage breast cancer. Timely diagnosis is often prevented by pus being mistaken for milk, along with the fear of being examined by a male doctor.
Another problem being tackled by the Oman Cancer Association is the huge accommodation and transportation costs faced by families living outside the capital whose children need treatment. In 2012 Dar al Hanan or the “Home from Home” was opened –a facility operating around the clock to provide free accommodation, food and transport to young cancer patients and their families. Besides the long list of goals achieved, there are many ambitious plans for the future, such as the development of a palliative care support service, in itself an immense task, but compounded by the need to raise awareness and educate society at large that terminally ill patients can be empowered in their choices.
As Oman prepares to host the Oman Cancer Congress in 2020, I ask Mrs Yuthar what is she finds most challenging about her life’s mission. Her reply is heart-breaking – “losing patients to cancer, especially children…”. For the first time in our sparky conversation we fall silent. But true to form, like the strong leader she is, the honorary president of OCA lifts the conversation, saying “..but if potential volunteers find this part hard, there are many other important roles to be filled, such as raising awareness and fundraising.”.
As we finish our meeting, Mrs Yuthar is running home to fulfil her role as grandmother, full of the same boundless enthusiasm that powers her mission to help others fight cancer. To me this is her superpower – not to let the difficult yet honourable business of life drag her down, not to allow her outlook on life to become jaded or grim. The media often refers to her as “four times survivor, devoted mother, president”, but to me she is a Warrior Queen, and Oman should be proud to have its very own Khawlah bint al-Azwar – a legendary female commander who leads the country in the battle against cancer.
CAKE:HOUR profile: Yuthar Al Rawahy
Favorite cake: Victoria Sandwich
Favorite book: The Alchemist Paulo Coelho
Role model: Gandhi
Hobbies: Sports & Yoga