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UAE’s first female surgeon Dr Houriya Kazim on her rise to top

As far as success stories go, the account of how Dr Houriya Kazim embarked on a grass-roots fight against breast cancer is a remarkable one.

As the UAE’s first female surgeon, she has selflessly and single-handedly raised public awareness about a subject that for decades, was taboo in the UAE. But to understand Houriya’s decision to enter medicine, one must look more closely at her past.

“I come from a family of doctors, including my father who is the UAE’s first surgeon, so it was probably no surprise that I followed this path,” explains the mother of two.

“I’m blessed with parents who put education above all things, and watching both my parents go out to work every day reinforced what was expected of me. My mother used to tell us as kids that the words “no” and “not possible” do not exist in her dictionary.”

After graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons in the late 1980s, Houriya returned home to Dubai to work in a government hospital. It was there, as a young intern, that she came face-to-face with women with advanced breast cancer, the likes of which she’d only ever seen in surgical textbooks.

Horrified and eager to do something to help, she packed her bags once again and flew to the United Kingdom to train as a breast surgeon. Here, she obtained her fellowship in general surgery before specialising in breast surgical oncology. After eight years, she returned home and put her knowledge to work.

Despite a few hurdles in the beginning – she couldn’t get the word ‘breast’ (‘breast surgeon’) put on her medical license, as it is not a polite word in Arabic – the surgeon went on to implement some of the most far reaching initiatives in the UAE to date. These include founding the Well Woman Clinic, launching Dubai’s first breast cancer support group, Brest Friends, and founding a charity of the same name.

“Brest Friends was started after several requests by patients for some kind of forum where survivors could meet and talk to each other without any inhibitions,” explains Houriya.

“We also help women who have no insurance or limited insurance to cover the cost of treatment. Moving forward, we have recently partnered with the Al Jalila Foundation. Our joint mission is to promote early detection of breast cancer, facilitate medical treatment and most importantly, set up and fund locally based research into the epidemiology of breast cancer in our region.”

Reflecting on her career so far, Houriya offers a few words of advice.

“In order to break that glass ceiling, you have to start at the bottom, and work and work until you get there. Sometimes you have to be very insular and selfish in that journey because once you break off the pipeline, it’s not easy to get back on. I would say know what you want to be and why, follow your dream, ignore the “noise” of people telling you what you can and cannot do, and never give up.”