BEIRUT: When 18-year-old Nagi El Saghir’s father was seeing him off at Beirut’s airport in 1971, he whispered to his son, “Do something useful. Become a doctor.”
The young man was heading to France for four months of intensive French language study in Lyon so he could do his university degree in engineering abroad.
His father, who ran a small shoe shop and couldn’t afford to send his children to the American University of Beirut, wanted his son to have a more comfortable life than he did.
Saghir, now professor of clinical medicine hematology-oncology at the AUB Medical Center, jokes, “Little did he know I’d be spending all my nights writing and editing medical articles.”
He credits his proud father’s parting words as well as his own dedication to prolific writing and research on breast cancer research – with over 80 publications to his name on file at the National Library of Medicine – with recently earning him the title as the first Arab chair of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, a professional organization dedicated to cancer research. The organization hosts an annual convention that usually takes place in Chicago and has more than 30,000 members worldwide representing 120 countries. The position, which he took in June, lasts one year.
He’s no stranger to the organization, having joined in 1984 after having completed his medical training at Columbia University’s St. Luke’s Hospital in New York in 1983. This was followed by a seven-year stint in Brussels at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, where the young medical student had his tuition fees waived for both undergraduate and medical training. Saghir worked part-time to pay for his basic living expenses.
In 2004, he was selected as a member of the ASCO international committee based on his prolific contribution to medical research and literature.
His success in his field made him want to return to his native Lebanon, where breast cancer occurs at much higher rates and affects younger ages compared to the global average. In Lebanon, over 50 percent of breast cancer patients are under the age of 50, while globally the vast majority of cases occur in women over 50. In Lebanon, he has seen many cases of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s with the disease, and in some rare instances, teenagers.
In 1993, he came back to Beirut, just three years after the conclusion of the 15-year Civil War, which began when he was just starting his medical education in Belgium.
“When I came back to Lebanon, the first thing that struck me was that there were so many cases of breast cancer at such young ages, and a significant number of these were advanced cases – so I started doing more research,” he recalls.
Saghir immediately started awareness campaigns to encourage women to receive early testing for the disease, which can greatly increase their chances of survival and lessen the chances of having to undergo a mastectomy.
“I saw that 60 to 80 percent of the cases were advanced, and 80 percent [of Lebanese breast cancer patients] had mastectomies. I decided we had to change this [trend].”
He began by writing articles in the local Arabic-language dailies An-Nahar and As-Safir, explaining the importance of monthly self-exams and annual mammograms.
He is happy to report that over the past 10 years he has seen cases of advanced breast cancer drop. Although there are still many early cases, at least women are more aware of the importance of early detection.
In addition to his campaigning for early breast cancer detection, Saghir has also been a passionate anti-smoking advocate, urging against the advertisement of another major cause of cancer in Lebanon. He has even personally criticized politicians for smoking on TV. He has long been a supporter of the campaign to ban smoking in Lebanon, a step that was backed by research conducted at AUB. The anti-smoking ban was enacted into law last year, although implementation of the ban has been spotty and criticized by activists and others who were anxious to see the development finally come to pass.
Even with some noteworthy successes in raising cancer awareness in Lebanon, Saghir still sees an enormous task ahead of him.
Over the next six months, with a $250,000 grant from GSK, the British health care company Glaxo Smith Klein, he will be studying 250 Lebanese women considered to be at high-risk for breast cancer, an important step in a country where they are still trying to determine the causes for the unusually high incidences and early cases of the disease.
ASCO has also been a major contributor to medical research in developing countries, offering grants to doctors with ideas and projects to improve cancer care in their countries – and as their motto says, “building bridges to conquer cancer.”