Researchers get on their motorbikes – to raise awareness of breast cancer

Published 2014-04-10 11:54. Updated 2014-04-10 12:04Denna sida på svenska

They are on their way to Karolinska Institutet from National University of Singapore – on motorcycles. By travelling 23,000 km researchers Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau want to raise awareness of breast cancer, primarily in Asian countries.

It is evening in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The tenth day of the three-month trip is coming to an end, and Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau are taking a breather. Eight hours on a motorcycle in 40-degree heat takes its toll.

“We've got to have a chat with whoever came up with this,” Philip Iau says.

He laughs. The journey was their own idea.

The surgeons and researchers Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau are travelling together by motorcycle from the National University of Singapore, where they work, to Stockholm where the final destination is Karolinska Institutet. The purpose is to promote awareness of breast cancer in Asia and raise funds for further research. 

The idea was born when Mikael Hartman, who is a medical doctor, trained at Karolinska Institutet and still connected to the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, moved to Singapore in 2009. During six months as a doctor in Singapore he saw more cases of advanced stage breast cancer than he had done over ten years in Sweden.

“The women went to the doctor at a late stage, and had very large tumours. That made me think that perhaps we should do more to increase awareness of the disease,” he says.

Many would say that riding 23,000 km on a motorcycle is not the most obvious solution. But besides the fact that Philip Iau and Mikael Hartman both enjoy riding motorcycles, they felt that it would not be enough to stay in Singapore in order to spread the message.

“The prevalence of breast cancer in Singapore has doubled in the last 25 years and the pattern in the same in most large Asian cities. The need for increased awareness of the disease is urgent,” says Philip Iau.

They say information about breast cancer is currently not reaching the women who need it most. Screening programmes developed in the west, such as mammography, miss the target as they do not take into consideration cultural and financial factors that may affect how women in Asian countries make decisions about their health.

“On this journey we create awareness of breast cancer and, at the same time, listen to the experiences of women and cancer clinics in the countries we visit,” Mikael Hartman says.

The patient interviews will be included in a study of Asian women's contact with health services conducted in collaboration with anthropologists at the University of Copenhagen.

The two doctors have also started a foundation for breast cancer research in Asia. The foundation is managed by National University of Singapore and all donations are matched by the state of Singapore.

“There is a lack of funding for research into important aspects of breast cancer in Asia. But thanks to some generous donors we have already managed to raise enough money to get started,” Mikael Hartman says.

The research will focus on identifying women with an increased risk of breast cancer, find possible solutions for screening and investigate factors that affect chances of survival.

Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau pay their own travel costs, food and accommodation. All the money they raise will go straight to the foundation.

A film team consisting of two people are documenting the journey. The entourage also includes two Jeeps with luggage.

The time has come to conclude the interview. Tomorrow Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau will inaugurate a new cancer clinic and participate in a conference on breast cancer screening. They must also try to get hold of new tyres before they set off to China.

On 12 June, Mikael Hartman and Philip Iau are scheduled to reach Karolinska Institutet.

Eight quick questions for researcher Mikael Hartman

The biggest challenge during the journey: The heat.

Most important thing in your luggage: My phone, to call my family.

Most beautiful so far: Penang in Malaysia. 

Lesson learned during the journey: Crikey it's far!

Best quality as a motorcyclist: Good temper.

My best quality as a travel companion: Patience.

My worst quality as a travel companion: Non-existent sense of direction.

The greatest moment of the journey so far: A fantastic send-off from Singapore with lots of people from the hospital turning up.

Follow the researchers’ journey on the web and in social media:


Twitter: @LongRideSS

Instagram: @longridess

Text: Sara Nilsson

Translation: Språkservice