Last October – as we have done several times over the years – Friday did a makeover and photo shoot with four UAE-based women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Each model-for-a-day had a very different story and experience of the illness, but they all shared a common link – they were surviving. That day was a huge success and the feedback the women received for being on Friday’s cover was incredible.
Almost a year on, we heard the sad news that one of the women, Muskan Mittal, had died. When we met her last year, Muskan spoke of her journey of self-discovery and how she was hoping to travel, meet new people and spend time with her son once the recovery process was over.
With this devastating news, we at Friday felt that it would be fitting to bring the models back together in memory of Muskan, and to talk about her, and their continuing cancer journeys.
While October is all about raising awareness of the illness, and in so many ways it is done in a positive light, it is also important to remember the severity of breast cancer, which is the second leading cause of death among women in the UAE. Here, Nareena Mehra, Victoria Holland and Cindy Dubratz reunited to talk us through their journeys over the last year.
‘Life after cancer is real life’
Nareena Mehra, 38, was diagnosed with third-stage aggressive cancer just after her 36th birthday. She had a double mastectomy, eight months of chemotherapy and six weeks’ radiotherapy. She went on to have a hysterectomy after testing positive for the cancer gene. When we met Nareena last year, she had finished her treatment six months before, and was considering nonsurgical breast reconstruction options which she hasn’t gone through with as yet, but plans to in the future.
‘The last year passed by really fast. My life is busy – I think stepping back into the real world, you realise how full-speed things go. Work has been very hectic. I’ve been crazy busy with my kids and doing things that I just couldn’t do when I was undergoing the treatment. I’m back to “normal life” and doing things that I used to take for granted. The year has been about navigating into being a bit of a different person.
Before cancer I was a mum on autopilot, not even thinking about what I was doing – just doing it. That just changed after cancer. In fact, everything has changed and I feel quite enlightened now. How I see myself has changed. I actually love myself now and it’s such an amazing feeling. I’ve been through something that makes you realise your own strength. I think if you love yourself, you are less angry about things and you become content.
I’m pretty healthy since last year – I’m even trying to be more vegetarian. I’ve tried to lose weight, because when you are on the cancer drugs and steroids you can put on a lot of weight. I think I’ve realised that it really comes down to balance – a little bit of everything in moderation is good. I’m still going for check-ups at the hospital every three months, and so far, so good.
It sounds crazy but I think when you are going through cancer it’s actually a bit easier than life after cancer. Life after cancer is real life and you have to step back into real things. For everyone else, everything is the same, but for you, everything has changed. The purpose of everything is different for me now.
I lost three really close friends – Muskan included – to cancer this year, which has been really hard. All three happened very close together. Obviously, for me, I feel like I’ve passed that stage in my life, but when these three ladies passed, it made me realise that [cancer] can always come back and that is really scary.
The reason I wanted to do this [follow-up interview] was to honour my dear friends and to make sure people know the reality of what the illness can do. It’s really hard to carry on with your life when people are gone. My Pink Ladies friends and I are all just trying to be there for each other. It’s great that everyone has ‘pink October’ but this is serious and people die. The awareness is there, but I would love it if people took it a bit more seriously.
People say “you’re normal now”. Things are not normal, I don’t think they ever will be, but I want people to know what it’s like to go through the illness.’
‘I think I’m probably stronger than I was before the cancer came.’
Vicki Holland, 41, first discovered she had cancer when she was 38. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Soon after her surgery, Vicki found that the cancer had returned in her ovaries and consequently had to have a hysterectomy. As a gym lover, Vicki had to re-train her body after surgery to do the things it could do before. When we met last year, Vicki told us how the Pink Ladies community was helping her get through her illness.
‘I think we all live in fear of the cancer returning, but I have been relatively healthy since this time last year. I’m still part of the Pink Ladies group and I’m always in touch with other women going through the disease at different stages of their journey.
I’ve been for a few tests in the last few months and am currently having tests for a lump in my neck – it’s probably nothing, but it’s something you have to do and something you have to worry about after having cancer. But the main thing is thinking about the great healthcare I have, and how lucky I really am to have that constant prodding.
Unfortunately, some of the Pink Ladies have died in the last year. There’s been about six or seven deaths, two of which have been my close friends. One of those was Muskan. She went very, very quickly and it was a huge shock. She ran the Dubai Marathon in January and it was shortly after that that she found out the cancer was back and was all through her body. By that point I think she felt there wasn’t much more she could do and she chose to try alternative therapies and live the rest of her life the best way she could.
Another lady and good friend of mine died around the same time. We had a memorial party for her, which was lovely but it does hit you really hard. Even though the doctors tell you you’re fine, you live with that fear of never knowing if it’s going to come back. You have that fear, but you have to get on with your life.
I’m still going to the gym around five times a week and I love it. I think I’m probably stronger than I was before the cancer came. This whole thing really makes you realise what’s important.
I now think about how I only have one body and one life and I think I need to make sure I treat it well. It makes you realise what’s important and how you should say no to the things you don’t want to do and get on with the important and brilliant things.’
‘I’m very lucky that my doctors are very vigilant.’
Cindy Dobratz, 40, was lucky in that her cancer was diagnosed early. When the doctors discovered her tumour, it was in stage one, the earliest stage of cancer. Despite this, Cindy had to undergo surgery followed by a course of radiation to destroy the cancer. When we met last year, Cindy spoke of how she was looking to the future, not worried and being positive about life after cancer.
‘Since our time together last year – aside from fending off the paparazzi after our cover shoot! – I have met my future husband and got engaged, which is very exciting and positive. It really has been a great year for me.
On December 9, 2016, I ran the Dubai half-marathon. I actually realised that morning was exactly one year since my surgery. It was a really great feeling as I was walking out the door to run and I realised that a year earlier I was walking out the door for my surgery. It felt amazing to have all that behind me.
Health-wise I have generally been doing good. I did have a mild infection a couple of months ago, a result of having some of my lymph nodes removed – my immunity isn’t what it used to be. It was very minor – I had to stay off work for a few days while my body repaired itself – but it was quite disheartening. I thought I was done with cancer but it was a haunting reminder.
A lot of people get haunted by cancer and they are always afraid it’s going to come back and I’m probably the complete opposite of that. I’m like “OK I’m done with that, it’s not going to happen again.” So I think I’m very lucky that my doctors are very vigilant. I’ve had multiple check-ups since last October. There have been a few red flags; I’ve had two biopsies in the last year, but they have all come back [clear]. It’s great that they [the doctors] are super-cautious; I would much rather that than realise something got missed.
In general, it’s all been very positive and I’m looking forward. Hopefully in the next year I’ll be getting married!’