24 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

Four breast cancer survivors in the UAE talk about their journeys

Four breast cancer survivors tell Shiva Kumar Thekkepat how they battled great odds to beat the Big C and lead a life full of hope

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
7 Oct 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Shutterstock

It’s a camaraderie that can only come out of a shared experience. Four different nationalities practising varied professions, united by the fact they all faced a common enemy – breast cancer – and have won so far.

When North American Cindy Dobratz, Indian entrepreneur Muskan Mittal, British teacher Vicki Holland and Canadian advertising strategist Nareena Mehra got together, the positive buzz in the room spoke volumes about the shared sisterhood of the Pink Ribbon – breast cancer survivors. Stories were swapped, opinions voiced and many myths debunked. Chemotherapy, surgery and other procedures can be overwhelming. Yet somehow, these women had found the strength to endure and overcome.

But how did they get through it? Read on to find out as these four inspiring women share how they survived their cancer journeys, now hoping to inspire and help other women with the condition cope. Then, turn to page 62 to see their stunning makeovers.

‘Just focus on the next step’


Cindy Dobratz, 39, is a customer care director, from the US

I was in the USA and decided to squeeze in a medical physical with my regular doctor. She noticed the lump during the physical exam and insisted I get a mammogram immediately. The mammogram and biopsy revealed invasive ductile carcinoma, grade 1 (slowest growing type of cells). It hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes yet. I was diagnosed in October last year, had a variety of scans and tests in November, surgery in December, and finished radiation in March. Even though I was diagnosed in the States, I had all other tests, surgery, and treatments here in the UAE. Incredibly blessed – pretty much the simplest cancer journey possible. Some people have a story of strength and perseverance; mine is a story of early detection. The hardest part of my breast cancer journey was pretty trivial compared to what so many people go through – the uncertainty and waiting for test results prior to surgery.

I was never afraid, I always knew I was going to be fine… that this was just an inconvenient bump on the road of life. There’s a lot of cancer on both sides of my family, including breast and ovarian. Based on discussions with my doctor, I decided it would be advantageous to have genetic testing results to help determine the best course for surgery.

The genetic tests took longer than expected and I was getting frustrated because I wanted to plan my life – was I going to have lumpectomy or mastectomy? What will recovery be like? What will my physical limitations be? Will I still be able to exercise? Would I have my surgery before or after Christmas? Would I be able to go home for Christmas? Would I be able to ski on New Year’s as I had planned? 
I sent an email to my doctor with all these questions before an appointment, and when I arrived, she politely scolded me: ‘Cindy, this is not one of your project plans at work where you are trying to plan the next six months, start to finish. You can only plan one step at a time here because there are too many dependencies. Just focus on the next step.’

Initially I was really irritated that she didn’t understand me. Then it sunk in on the drive home, and then it was kind of liberating – no need to stress out about the what-ifs and maybes of the future – just focus on the next step.

Again, now it all seems so petty, especially knowing so many people go through so much more. But at the time, your mind is racing and it’s all-consuming.

I’m on my own here in Dubai. I’m very close with my family in Minnesota, and my parents wanted to come take care of me, but my Dad couldn’t travel because he was battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and my mother was busy taking care of him. He passed on in April this year.

So, my Dubai family of friends were invaluable – I never felt alone. One particular friend was very matter-of-fact about everything. This helped me take the emotion out of cancer, and turned it into a problem to solve. I recognise this approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it helped me keep things in perspective and remain sensible.

Also knowing how lucky I was – my cancer being low grade, the most common/treatable kind, not having spread to my lymph nodes – I knew all along I was being blessed with an ‘easy’ cancer experience.

Last week I had my first mammogram post treatment, and haven’t received the results yet. But I am not worried. I feel good.

Worry and anxiety doesn’t help the situation – don’t stress out about the what-ifs and the maybes of the future. Have faith and just focus on the next step.

‘It gave me the chance to reset’


Muskan Mittal, 34, is a business owner, from India

I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in July 2015. I remember experiencing a little pain in my breasts, and I had gone and had it checked. But the doctor said it was fine, there was nothing wrong.

I consulted a breast surgeon and he said there was nothing to be worried about. He told me to wait for six months and see him again if I still felt the same. I was not happy, but you listen to your doctor. I kept looking for a lump every day, and two months later one morning as I examined my right breast I felt one definite lump. I immediately consulted another doctor and she confirmed that it was a lump. She said I should do an FNAC (fine needle aspiration cytology), a diagnostic procedure where a needle is inserted into the lump and a small amount of tissue is sucked out for examination for malignancy.

Every doctor – I had my treatment done in India because my family wanted me to – told me not to worry. According to them, only one in 100 would develop cancer. They all said the tests I did was just required procedure.

I didn’t question my doctors’ initial diagnoses and I didn’t even read the medical reports. It was only when I went to Mumbai, India, for treatment that I actually went through the initial tests and it was clearly mentioned there was a lump. If I had known then I feel I could have saved time.

I would advise all women who do such tests to go through all the reports very carefully and be aware. Ask a lot of questions.

I have a son; Aryaver has just turned three. He was a year-and-a-half when I discovered I had cancer. He helped me go through the difficult period; kids can be unbelievably positive. When I found out about my cancer, I’d just finished weaning him. Maybe that’s also one of the reasons it went undetected, because when you’re breastfeeding you tend to ignore the early signs.

My first reaction was shock. I didn’t know what to do. It was hard to take that it had occurred to me. And even before it wears off you realise there are so many things to be done. Suddenly everything takes on an urgency. There are so many tests to be done, so much happening that you don’t really know what’s what.

However, through it all I remained positive. Even when I went into surgery to have the lump removed I kept telling my family and myself that nothing would happen to me.

But that wasn’t the case. After the surgery we found that the tumour was malignant, the lymph nodes were severely affected. I was diagnosed with stage-three cancer at age 33.

Sixteen rounds of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiation therapy were prescribed from August 2015 to April 2016. Though it was hectic, it helped in a way because I didn’t have much time to dwell on my condition. Luckily, the effects of chemotherapy weren’t so bad.… overall, the whole experience was good for me even while I was in treatment because it taught me to be happy for the moment. It has changed me quite a bit. I actually look at cancer as a gift – it gave me the opportunity to press the ‘reset’ button. 
At 33, it helped me redo my life, realise what was important.

I’ve come out of it a happier, more positive person. I live life for now. If I want to travel I will travel. If I want to meet people I will.

Having the right people to help you through it is important. Most of my family and friends helped, my husband Nischay and my mother the most. I continued to work through the treatment, but I did it at my own pace.

What was most difficult was dealing with the why – why did I get it? There was no reason, no family history, I’d breastfed 
my child, ate healthy, exercised, did the right things…

My husband helped me change my life. He took over completely for a year – what I should eat, what I shouldn’t, even what I think! I became so much more healthy because he cut out all processed food and chemicals from my diet. It’s a big part of why I feel good now.

Even losing my hair during chemotherapy didn’t faze me. After a few days I had my head shaved. And my husband said I looked hot bald! I had a blast wearing wigs, and ended up buying a new one every month.

I have to say that this year has been an amazing year for me and it’s taken me on a journey of self-discovery like no other. I’m a far happier and more content person than I’ve even been.

‘I take it one day at a time now’


Vicki Holland, 40, is a school teacher, from the UK

A small lump in my right breast announced the arrival of cancer in my life two years ago – though I did not know it then. First I had to have the breast checked. It was pretty scary, and I had to take a deep breath to go there.

I am a very positive person, who always reflects on how lucky I am. So, despite my misgivings I was relatively calm. Then it was a whirlwind of mammograms, biopsies, and within two weeks that October I found out that the lump was cancerous. The doctor’s decision was to do a double mastectomy.

I had the skin and muscle taken off my back to reconstruct my breasts after the mastectomy.

And then after all that pain and coping, I discovered last year that the cancer had recurred in my ovaries and I had to have a hysterectomy. So, I had two operations in two years.

The first time I had been comparatively composed. The second time I went through the whole gamut of emotions – really angry, confused and sad.

The first time round I had the time to think it over, do some research on the various treatments and prepare myself for the surgery. It took some time for me to realise that I had to calm down and get back to business. There was no other way.

So, I sat down and took myself through all possible scenarios. After all, I was detected at stage one, while a lot of people are detected at stage three, which is pretty advanced. So, I started counting all the positive bits I could see. I decided that I had many more years on this planet, this is what I had to do to achieve that, and went ahead.

The hardest thing about the cancer was the changes my body went through. I’ve a lot of scars, on my back and on the sides. When I came out of the operation theatre the skin was stretched so tight across my body that I had to train to move again. Mobility and flexibility were severely restricted. Bending down to get something off the floor, carrying around my shopping, it was all difficult. Everything pulls, and everything feels so different. Even now.

And consider that I am a crazy gym person. I lift heavy weights, do Crossfit and have to stay fit. In fact, that was a great motivator – it gave me something to do. After the surgery in December I was back at the gym by February. I consulted a sports physiotherapist who made me do a lot of exercises. In my condition, being strong and healthy was very important. And getting there made me strong mentally as well.
Now I have check-ups every year. It was during last year’s check-up that we discovered that the cancer had popped up in my ovaries that resulted in my hysterectomy. 
But I look at it this way: I am so lucky they found it on time. Of course, the hysterectomy brought on menopause, and with it the hot flashes, lack of sleep… You just learn to cope with it. I carry a fan in my handbag. This is my new normal.

My family is all back in England, but having been here for six years I have gathered a lot of friends. Now after my cancer surgeries and joining the cancer survivor support group, Pink Ladies 24/7, I have tons of friends for support. If I am wide awake at 3am, I go on to the Whatsapp group of Pink Ladies and there will always be somebody who’s awake and willing to talk you through it. It’s a great group and we are like family – we visit each other in hospital during chemo sessions, there are get-togethers, family days at our houses.

I am hoping that I am now free of cancer. But I am not worried. I take one day at a time, savouring every minute.

‘I’m done with self-pity’


Nareena Mehra, 37, is an advertising strategist, from Canada

Many doctors will tell you pain in the breast has little to do with breast cancer. But it was that pain that took me to the doctor, and saved me.

It was in July 2013 that I began experiencing pain in my left breast and consulted a doctor. An ultrasound revealed a little lump. However, I was told not to worry and to have it checked again in six months.

I was supposed to go back in February 2014 but I got caught up with various things and skipped the test until the pain caught up with me again. It had developed into a shooting pain that would come and go, often between intervals of a few weeks. By July I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

This time when I had the ultrasound the doctor who was monitoring it froze, and I knew immediately something was terribly wrong. The lump had grown to over 5cm from the 0.5cm it had originally been. And there were multiple lumps forming around it.

I had to take a biopsy a month later. We did it just three weeks after my 36th birthday. Two days after the biopsy I was celebrating my best friend’s birthday when my doctor called to tell us that I had third-stage cancer, and a very rare and aggressive type at that. To say it was a shock would be a woeful understatement. I’d never been sick before and from that moment, our lives changed totally. It was like a whirlwind hit us – my husband and now-seven-year-old twins, Aahyl and Myra Sayeed. I just didn’t have any time to think – which was a blessing!

Since my husband’s family is in Chicago, we decided to go there for treatment. The doctors repeated all the tests and wanted to do a mastectomy immediately. I just went along with it, because that was all I could do.

We returned to Dubai and I underwent eight months of chemotherapy, and then six weeks’ radiotherapy, which was completed in February 2015. Then my doctor advised me to take the BRCA1 genetic test, which determines whether one has the gene mutations that denote an increased risk of developing many types of cancer.

I was reluctant, but later decided it is better to know than get hit in the dark. It could even save my life. And that’s exactly what happened – I tested positive. It was the most difficult day for us. Until then we had pulled on, but when the tests came out, my family and I broke down and cried.

It changed a lot of things. Having the gene means then the chances of cancer recurring are much higher. So with the test results out, I had an 89 per cent chance of getting cancer within the next two years in my right breast.

Though initially I was shocked, as the thought settled in I was thankful that it had been discovered in time to save my life.

So, immediately after the radiations were over, I had a hysterectomy to remove my ovaries, which were in danger of being affected. Then six months later, last December, my right breast was also removed. All these were preventive measures. After this, I had breast reconstruction surgery, which did not go according to plan. I’m a person who believes that if you are positive good things happen. And here, bad things kept happening to me one after another. My body is full of scars, like I’ve been attacked by a shark. But being naturally positive I’ve bounced back.

The good thing about this was my children were too young to realise exactly what was happening. They didn’t understand I had a life-threatening disease, just that their mum was sick. And for me, it was great having them around – they took my mind off all the negativity that builds up. Watching crazy TV shows helped too, a great distraction! Work was also a good way to forget my condition. My company and my boss were incredibly supportive, giving me the space and time to bounce back. They and my family and friends took care of all the extraneous things so I just had to focus on getting better.
Another good thing that came out of this is the Pink Ladies 24/7 group that I and four other ladies started as a support group for women who have breast cancer. When we were diagnosed with cancer, we didn’t know who to talk to about it. There are so many questions: When you wake up at 3am bleeding who do you ask? This was what prompted us to start the group – to be there for each other, encourage and disseminate and share information. To just listen, through good times and bad. We meet once a month, have coffee mornings, family get-togethers, and we are on a whatsapp group 24/7.

Sometimes when I talk about my experiences I find it difficult to believe all that. I feel like I am an actor, telling this story of a woman who’s been through all of this.

I finished my last treatment seven months ago. I just decided I was done with treatment, and self-pity, and decided to get back to work, and on with my life. Now I am considering breast reconstruction options that don’t involve surgery.

I guess we women are just naturally strong and resilient. We bounce back no matter how down we get. So, life is good!

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer