Saturday, April 12, 2014

Separated By Miles, United By Edification

Two social activists from Macedonia and Turkey show that lots of willpower and a little new age savviness go a long way in raising cancer awareness writes Karthik Shankar.

Image Courtesy: Feza and Biba
Biba Dodeva and Feza Sengel could not be more different. Biba with her radiant and the youthful appearance looks every inch the celebrity that she is. Feza’s sharp stately features on the other hand, seem more in line with the world of academia. The two are also separated by thousands of miles; Biba being from Macedonia and Feza from Turkey. They are however united by a common cause – the fight against cancer.
Biba, a famous television singer in her country seems like an unlikely candidate to inspire a social movement across her country but that’s what the exuberant activist did when she founded Borka in 2007. She explains that she took up cancer awareness due to personal reasons. “I have lost dear friends from cancer. Moreover my mother has been undergoing cancer treatments for the last eight years. I started Borka because there was a lack of cancer related organisations in Macedonia.

Feza also has a deeper connection to cancer, having lost her mother to the disease during childhood. With a long career in Public Relations for NGOs, she finally joined The Breast Cancer Foundation, Turkey in 2006 taking up the role of Corporation Communications director and project manager. “We are the only breast cancer foundation in Turkey. We are raising awareness through PR and education projects” she says.

Biba admits that initially she didn’t know much about cancer. “I’m a local celebrity, so I thought I could do something more to highlight this issue. People are more likely to listen to me than oncologists because they are interested in what I am doing.”

Feza espouses corporate techniques to promote social causes. “Look at a brand like Coca Cola Coca. It has sales and a marketing strategy. So if you want to promote cancer awareness, prevention and screening, you need money, strategy, and a plan. That’s how we were able to make people listen to us.”

She is encouraged by the reputation her organisation has built up. “We have been supported by US State department. Now we found corporate social responsibility funding. We have reached 23,000 euros with his project. We are working with ministry of health, celebrities, press, TV. She says that the journey has not been easy however. “People didn’t want to hear about cancer and no company wanted their brands involved with it, but we made a change. When I look back, it was tough work. We are still working very hard but now they are knocking on our door. For sustainability, brands must support communities and NGOs. Now they understand it is not about cancer. We are dealing with women trying to stay healthy.

Biba is also proud of her organisation’s growth. “We are one of the biggest in Macedonia. Our organisation covers all types of cancer. After all these years, I can say we are on the right road. We have close to 10,000 supporters. They are not just cancer survivors but even young students, both male and female.

When asked if their efforts have been codified into laws, Biba points out that several initiatives of Borka have been very successful. “Since 2008, we got all therapies in Macedonia. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are free of charge if it is malignant. We also achieved cervical cancer screening and we have HPV vaccine on our positive list for immunisation. Last year the whole month of March was Colorectal Cancer awareness March. The FOBT (Faecal Occult Blood Test) was free for everyone in Macedonia.”

Feza says that one of the unique achievements of her organisation is the ‘breast health peer education program’. “It’s a very unique program. We train radiology and emergency nursing unit students as volunteers just before they graduate so that they can go to normal state run schools and carry out awareness programs for students from the ninth to the twelfth grade. It is simply information such as risk factors, early detection and how to care of your breasts; information that every girl and woman should know.

However she is bothered by Turkey’s incidences of breast cancer. “Cancer is not an old age woman illness in Turkey. Younger girls get cancer. In Europe 3-5% of breast cancer patients are below 40 but in Turkey it is 17%. Now things are changing and girls are getting married over 30 but they have to be educated in preventive healthcare. Moreover mammography is not upto EU standards.

Biba agrees. “We want to change the mentality of women because they are taking care of families, house and last they take care of themselves.”

Feza revealed that in Turkey, women are frightened of cancer. “However, fear is the friend of cancer and it aids education.”

The two women show no signs of slowing down their advocacy. As Biba surmises, “We still have a lot of work left to do.”

To find out more about Feza and Biba and their work, feel free to look through the following links:                                 

Karthik Shankar is a journalism student from Chennai. He currently freelances for Times of India. In addition to contributing to The Red Elephant Foundation, Karthik has also been part of the daily newsletter production team for 2013 edition of the  Chennai Film Festival. He was also a live blogger for Lit for Life 2014, the literary festival by The Hindu. Karthik is an avid reader and counts Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo and Ursula Le Guin as his favourite novelists. Karthik can be contacted at