In honor of World Cancer Day, we would like to share the story of one of the 2019 Saudi Young Leaders Exchange Program (SYLEP) alumni, Ali Sulais. Ali is currently a psychiatry resident in Saudi Arabia, and has been passionate about raising awareness around cancer since 2017. 

In May of 2017, Ali’s close friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma which develops in soft tissue such as skeletal muscle tissue and sometimes hollow organs. It usually afflicts children but is significantly more dangerous for adults. Ali shared his friend’s journey from when he was diagnosed until he passed away in December of 2017. His friend put up a strong fight and had so much he wanted to share about his experience with cancer, but he never had the chance. Thus, Ali was inspired to spread his friend’s story and to work with cancer patients. 

Ali had an opportunity to work in oncology in 2019 and experienced cancer from a different perspective — the doctor’s side. He found himself connecting with the patients’ family members because he knew what it was like to be in their position. Ali described a time he put his hand on a patient’s brother’s shoulder and simply said “I know it’s difficult.” The brother immediately broke down and embraced him. Because of his experience, Ali was able to easily approach the patients and their families with empathy, and sense their fears through their minor expressions. 

Ali shared his perspective that in Saudi Arabia, people rarely refer to cancer by its name: Instead, they refer to it as “that disease”, or “the malignant”. It has an alarming stigma that deters patients from sharing what they’re going through with anyone outside their immediate family. Some people think that it is a highly contagious disease and in turn shun people who are diagnosed with it. Even so many of those who are diagnosed know nothing but the rumors they have heard — Ali mentioned a patient he worked with who refused chemotherapy because he thought that it involved pesticides. 

Ali is determined to resolve the misinformation surrounding cancer in his country and create a community for patients so that they do not have to suffer in silence. He works with a group of cancer survivors who visit recently diagnosed patients and give them the motivation and support to fight. He presents their stories to the community in an effort to enlarge it and erase the stigma surrounding the disease. 

In the future, Ali hopes to establish an organization that specializes in group psychotherapy for cancer patients. The presence of cancer and the treatment involved can often predispose a person to depression and anxiety. The use of group psychotherapy has been demonstrated to be an effective method of alleviating these mental illnesses. Ali plans to gather cancer patients, help them get through their experiences, and then present their stories to the community to raise awareness and eliminate stigma. 

SYLEP is sponsored by the United States Department of State, U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, and administered by Legacy International.