CLAD in a black and white dress with a black coat, exuding regal presence yet greeting me with a wide warm smile, I was entranced by her beauty and strength and immediately understood why she had such an impact on anyone who had met her.
It was towards the end of her fifth day in Malaysia this time around – constantly photographed at seemingly endless public engagements and media inter-views since her arrival, was Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordon.
Expecting grandeur since our last interview a couple of years back, I was taken aback at how far removed she still is from the regal standoffish demeanor as I met her after the closing of the recent World Cancer Congress (WCC).
This is because of her dual role — a princess and an activist in addition to being a mother. Born Dina Mohammad Khalifeh, she married HRH Prince Mired bin Ra’ad in 1992 and soon became the proud mother of three children; Princess Shirin, Prince Rakan and Prince Jafar.
Princess Dina is also the first Arab to be elected president of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) for the 2018-2020 term. The UICC is the largest global organisation solely dedicated to reducing the global cancer burden, promoting greater equity and integrating cancer control into the world health and development agenda. It is comprised of over 1000 organisations from 162 countries, making it the largest cancer-fighting organisation in the world.
“My title as a ‘princess’ comes with great responsibilities and my role as a global advocate for cancer control and non-communicable diseases is some-thing I take very seriously. My other title ‘mother of a cancer survivor’ gives me the privilege to help parents and caregivers of cancer.”
“Although I may not have a medical background, coming from the heart of the developing world, and having led the King Hussein Cancer Foundation (KHCF) as director general for 15 years till June 2016, I have extensive proven experience in addressing the challenges of cancer and more importantly, in finding practical solutions that can improve cancer care and control in low and middle-income countries.”
“Now as the president of UICC and as a mother of a cancer survivor, I plan to work tirelessly to help reduce the global burden of childhood cancers, until a child in the developing world has the same chance to be cured as a child with cancer in a developed country. I will work to strengthen this valuable synergy in order to find solid practical solutions to help bridge the gap in cancer control between countries in the developing and developed world.”
When Dina’s second son Rakan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) in 1997, Dina was thrust with the role of a caregiver. At that time, the family was living in England.
“We experienced a multitude of emotions: shock, sadness, helplessness, confusion and mostly fear of losing what was most precious to us. We kept asking ourselves: “Why did this happen to us? How did we miss the signs?”
“There were lots of questions. After the initial shock and lots of tears, we quickly realised that we had to be strong and focus on saving our child. So we quickly kicked into action.”
After his diagnosis, Rakan began receiving treatment, but his cancer relapsed after 18 months of chemotherapy. The family then headed to Boston where the toddler received a bone marrow transplant donated by his older sister; Shirin who was four year old then at the Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Centre.
“We were fortunate to have been living in England at that time because Rakan wouldn’t have been able to get the treat-ment he needed in Jordan,” she confides as the treatment options in her homeland was scarce.
“At that time, cancer was so taboo. The Al-Amal Centre (meaning hope in Arabic) was the first centre for cancer care and it was just opening. Even the word ‘cancer’ was intentionally omitted from the centre’s name. But we were fortunate to give Rakan the treatment that he needed. But what about other cancer patients? Those who didn’t have the financial means to get the treatment they needed?” she asked.
As a caregiver herself, Dina affirmed that caregivers need support from family and friends, as the treatment for cancer is long, time consuming with lots of ups and downs riddled with tension.
“The same goes for family members. At the end of his treatment, we were in the United States and were coached on the huge effect cancer has on siblings. It’s very important for the whole family and the school to be told about how to recognise the suffering that siblings go through. There is now lots of research and great advice on how to talk to children and siblings about cancer.
Speaking to children is an art in itself, but in such an important situation as a cancer diagnosis, I’d urge parents to seek advice so that they know how, when and what is age-appropriate to discuss.”
Dina explained that the first thing any cancer sufferer would point out to is that one starts to appreciate the little things; the ordinary acts of simple living.
“I would say that this is the one bright aspect of a cancer diagnosis, one really understands that one should never take one’s health for granted and to count one’s blessings. Now, as a family, we try to have better nutrition, exercise more and smoking is certainly forbidden in our house.”
Dina then emphasised that every-thing needs to be in moderation.
“Certainly exercise but it doesn’t have to be extreme but regular, and we need to move more. Choosing healthy food, alcohol in moderation, certainly no smoking and try not to be too stressed as much as possible.”
“Obesity as we all know as well as processed sugar is really bad and is really food for cancer. So, this is our responsibility as individuals.”
Reiterating that it is not just the burden on the individual to keep healthy, she expounded that the governments need to provide a healthy environment for their citizens.
“If healthy food is not as costly compared to unhealthy food, when its citizens don’t have that much money, with no places to work, no places to run, no school programmes to teach the kids, especially now with technology of course – making our kids sit down and be stationed all the time, how can we make that a lifestyle choice?” she poses.
“Governments have to make tobacco-free public spaces, stop advertising for tobacco, stopping the tap for all the risk factors that bring in the patients. Yes, we call it lifestyle choices, but it is not really lifestyle choices alone. The big burden is on the government to provide and implement that.”
Dina pointed out that UICC has a very strong membership base of not only credible and talented institutions, but also most importantly, members who are utterly dedicated to fight for cancer control equity in the world.
When asked regarding her position as the president and Malaysia, she was quick to rationalize that it is not really her plans.
“It is really how Malaysia will want to take ownership and utilise the wealth of knowledge of the UICC to benefit themselves. Because we are there – we help the people who really want to help themselves.”
“The political will has to be there. We have to reach out. At the UICC; we have so many tools, there are many programmes that you can join. But off-course, you are doing great in so many things. Nobody is perfect, somethings you could do more.”
“Really, the secret is that now that you know UICC, you should apply for the City Cancer Challenge initiative and when you do that, it is going to be an opportunity not to be missed, this is when Malaysia will benefit. The country has to take ownership – otherwise we can’t do it. – The HEALTH