A career in public health changed course after her father launched the UAE’s first foundation to help people through the scary time after their cancer diagnoses. Now, Nora Al Suwaidi spends half her time trying to change her country’s healthcare policies.

Nora Al Suwaidi came to her current position as director general of Rahma Cancer Patient Care Society in the most personal way possible. It started long ago, back in 2000, when her father was diagnosed with lymphoma and told he had two weeks to live.

Jamal Al Suwaidi did live. And, drawing on his experience of not knowing who or where to go in the UAE for help, he proceeded to launch Rahma three years ago.

Modelled on cancer societies designed to help patients in the darkest hours of their lives in the West, the organisation gets its name from the Arabic word for compassion. As one of the founders, Nora helped devise fundraising strategy and the business plan, surveying the community to see what they needed most. The patients wanted more community activation and support groups, of which there weren’t many.

And so Rahma helps patients in a variety of ways: with financial assistance, helping to send tests abroad to organise a second opinion, facilitating bone marrow transplants in India, because they are not conducted in the UAE; getting wigs for those who lose their hair during chemotherapy, arranging oncology massage – even giving rides to treatment.

“We do anything that will make them feel better about the condition they are in,” says Nora.

Rahma also offers free mammograms, pap smears and tests for the BRCA gene. Volunteers can get involved, too, mostly participating in “pop-ups” at hospitals to let cancer patients know that Rahma is there to help, says Nora.

About half of the center’s work involves trying to change policy for patients, so they can get better insurance coverage and access to treatment. Although insurance plans in the UAE only cover chemotherapy and radiation, Rahma advocates for personalised plans, because when it comes to cancer, one size does not fit all, says Nora.

She dreams of a bone marrow transplant centre and treatment options rivaling those commonly found in the West.

“We’re just a foundation, so baby steps,” she says. “Until they change policy we can’t really do much.”

Since launching Nora estimates Rahma has helped 150 patients. Along the way she has seen first-hand that when it comes to battling the various forms of this disease, attitude is everything.

“Fifty per cent of the fight is mental,” she says..

Rahma is still very much a family operation. Jamal, who is director general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies, remains as the chairperson. And in February, after shedding more than 25 kilograms and taking up running only three years before, Nora’s brother, Dr Khaled Jamal Al Suwaidi, completed a major challenge. He spent three days running 327 kilometers from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi, all in support of Rahma’s patients.

Tel: (02) 4460776. rahmacancercare.com