It’s 11am and an army of hair stylists, make-up artists and photography team buzz around eight women who are happily laughing and chatting as they are getting ready for their close up.
Swathes of pink – from soft blush through to fuschia and magenta – fill the room overlooking Dubai’s Media City landscape. It’s the only clue that these lively, glamorous women aren’t all friends or colleagues waiting to pose for a company or group portrait.
They are, in fact, all breast cancer survivors and have been through the worst fear, pain and stomach-churning worry anyone can imagine, but are now thrilled to be part of one of the largest, most comprehensive breast cancer awareness campaigns in the Middle East – the BurJuman’s Safe and Sound Ambassadors.
They are also beacons of hope for women in the UAE to prove the disease isn’t necessarily a death sentence.
“I’ve been through so much and now want to help other women with breast cancer,” smiles Christiane Kampar. “It’s important women know that even the smallest thing – a lump or change in their breast – can need attention. I want to help save lives.”
While a few of the women have met before at support groups, others were meeting for the first time. Their pictures are being taken for posters and campaign material that will be seen in BurJuman and selected outdoor venues.
Each woman’s smile tells a story – they are the lucky ones who have refused to be beaten by the second biggest health-related killer in the UAE (behind cardiovascular diseases) and the most common form of cancer among women. According to latest available figures, in 2012, 41 per cent of cancer cases among women in the capital, Abu Dhabi, were breast cancer.
Recent statistics show that women’s lives are being saved in the UAE thanks largely to more public awareness about the disease, which champions the importance of regular check-ups. Early detection is paramount in the fight against breast cancer and campaigns such as BurJuman’s Safe and Sound have been raising the pink flag since 1997. The focus remains on spreading the message and since they were formed they have reached more than 20 million people in the Emirates.
“The ambassadors of BurJuman Safe and Sound 2014 came forward to volunteer for this year’s campaign,” says Genan Al Sayed, marketing communications manager at BurJuman.
“It is through their stories of strength and survival that they will help to encourage more women to take control of their own health. All of these women have recognised the importance of following the three steps that the campaign has been promoting over the years: monthly self-examination, clinical breast checks from age 20 onwards and an annual mammogram from age 40 onwards. Through their active participation in the programme this month, right up to our Walkathon on October 31, they hope to reach out to a greater segment of the community and help them to take the necessary steps in leading healthier lifestyles.”
Friday meets some of the campaign ambassadors to find out what it means to be a breast cancer survivor...
Elaine Callander, 46
I worked as an emergency room nurse for 10 years in the UK so I knew that I had to get regular check-ups. My first mammogram was done when I was in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and the doctors found a cyst in my breast. It was worrying, but I knew I had to do tests every six months after that. We moved to Dubai in 2011 where I was referred to the Well Woman Clinic. Eventually the staff said I needed a lump removed as it was growing. I underwent surgery to remove it in June 2013 then had to undergo chemo for 18 weeks at the American Hospital.
I am a great believer in fate. I am convinced that there is a reason we moved to the UAE from Ireland and why we moved to Dubai, which is where I was recommended to the most wonderful surgeons and doctors who did their best to take care of me.
My chemo finished in November and I went for a double mastectomy straight away because I was scared I would develop breast cancer. We’re in the process of plan B for next January, which is the reconstruction phase with my plastic surgeon.
A reason I wanted to be an ambassador of breast cancer is because I want to spread the message that we are very fortunate to have such incredible treatment options available to us here and it’s so important to do regular check-ups. I also want to tell women, it’s important they know cancer is not something to be embarrassed about or to be afraid of.
Linda Berlot, 46
I was diagnosed in Dubai after finding lumps during a self-examination. I’ve always been vigilant about checking myself regularly because breast cancer is prevalent in my family. My mum fought the disease for 15 years; she went through five sessions of chemotherapy over that time. Because of this I have always undergone regular checks and mammograms.
But I was worried when I found a few hard lumps, like little rocks, in my breasts during a routine self check. I hoped they would go away but they didn’t and before I knew it six months had passed and they had grown bigger. I went to the doctor, and the two lumps were around 3mm in diameter, the size of a large coin. The doctors suggested I have a radical double mastectomy and reconstruction which I had. I was very lucky that I didn’t need to undergo chemotherapy. Nonetheless it’s a tough journey and you really find out how strong you are. I don’t have any children but I had a lot of support. My sister came (she lives in Switzerland) during my operation, and my friends all rallied around. You quickly learn that you cannot go through this on your own, you learn to lean into your relationships and allow others to take care of you.
I remember how my mother used to be brave and how she fought the cancer. She was living and working in Zimbabwe and used to fly to Italy, our home country, for treatment, then board a plane back to Zimbabwe again. She passed away from the disease in late 2010, six months before I was diagnosed with it myself. She was my role model and the epitome of courage – she lived and died on her own terms.
I am a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason and there is a lesson there for us to learn. When I was diagnosed with the disease, I never thought, “Why me?”. Instead I thought, “Wow, so it’s me?”
I took a step forward to not only learn from it but to help other people in similar situations. Being involved in this campaign allows me to do that – to be of service to other people, to give them hope, advice, and support... Since being diagnosed with cancer I have lived a fuller life. Having the privilege of knowing your life could end any day was a wake-up call.
I started my own relationship-coaching company because I decided I had to live my passion and working as a life coach was something I enjoyed. I could no longer live a life that was complacent just because I was afraid – frightened about how I would pay my bills, scared of how I would make it on my own. I realised I had everything I needed to be successful. All I had to do was trust my ability. It wasn’t easy, but I felt I no longer had a choice – I chose to live rather than just exist.
A year after treatment I went to Antarctica to raise awareness about breast cancer. We were 12 women who had all overcome the disease and we wanted to spread a message to other women. I have just got back from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro; so for me it’s onwards and upwards!”
Ghadeer Kunna, 45
I had the misconception that cancer only affected older people, so it was a shock when I detected a lump at 29 while I was in the US. I was surprised because I had been eating organic, exercising, don’t smoke and don’t drink; I guess I just got the luck of the draw.
I moved to the UAE from the US and I was monitoring the lump in my breast and having a mammogram annually. Then four years ago, the doctors, during a routine check-up, saw that the lump was growing. In January this year a biopsy was done and I was diagnosed with cancer. In the back of my mind I had the gut feeling I was going to get it, I knew what my body was trying to tell me, but no matter how much you prepare yourself, it still really hits you.
You hear the words cancer and you don’t realise there are so many different types and so many different forms. When I was diagnosed, I had two lumps in both breasts, both already at stage 3. I always joke that I have to do things big… even my cancer had to be big!
I was told that the cancer was multiplying too fast and they wouldn’t be able to do surgery to extract it. They then started me on chemo. I was also told that because of the severity of my cancer they would need to shut down my ovaries too, so if having kids had been on my agenda then I needed to cancel that plan.
I wasn’t scared, nor was my mum. We were more in shock. The whole situation – a double mastectomy, removing the right lymph node and the nipples, and of course not having kids – all this information was shared at the same time.
The strange thing is, I was calm about the cancer, but I cried about not being able to have kids – that decision just got taken out of my hands.
But, you kind of get to a point in life where you just say: “Bring it on. Let’s do this and get it over with.” And this was definitely that time for me. On the day of my surgery I had the same feelings. I said goodbye to my original natural breasts and just said OK, silicones it is. I made enough jokes about how they’ll never sag and age. One has to learn how to laugh, otherwise life will be full of tears.
Now I feel fine, it’s been a year since the double mastectomy but it’s a journey. There are so many misconceptions though. Girls need to perform self examinations, and the cancer isn’t to do with age so you need to take care of your health if you value your life. I remember when I was very sick people would look at me and be afraid, as if the cancer was contagious, and they would stop in their tracks and walk away from me. I want people to know that not everything you see is bad, just walk over and tell the cancer patients they can do it! We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. I was not feeling sorry for myself so I didn’t need other people to do it for me!
Roberta Rees, 49
I was diagnosed in 2008 when a regular mammography check-up showed a dark area but no lump. The doctors thought it was an aggressive inflammatory breast cancer so we did a biopsy that showed cancerous cells. I still remember the day the doctor told me the results. I felt as if the ceiling had come crashing down.
They suggested doing what they call a ‘sandwich treatment’ – four chemos and then the operation to remove the lump. But after the third chemo, an MRI revealed the lump had disappeared. The doctor suggested avoiding going under the knife. I sought the opinions of more doctors and many advised me not to go ahead. But I was so insecure about what to do, because of mixed responses, that I opted for the operation. Today I am glad I did that as I now have peace of mind.
I was going to travel back to my home country Brazil for treatment, but I am so grateful I found incredible doctors here. I have been involved with ‘Brest Friend’, a breast cancer survivors group here, and it was there that I heard about Safe and Sound, BurJuman’s breast cancer awareness programme, of which I am now ambassador.
I have survived cancer for six years and I need women to know that it’s possible to treat. I believe life works in cycles and feel this opportunity to be an ambassador has come for me to help others because I received so much support. While medical treatment is very important a huge factor is attitude. Staying positive is what is imperative.
Julia Godoy, 59
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1976, then 10 years later doctors detected breast cancer – just when I thought I was going to get the all clear.
The cancer had massed on the right side and I asked the surgeon to remove both my breasts. back then doctors were still learning about breast cancer and not keen on a double mastectomy.
It was a devastating time in my life. I was in the US juggling working with three kids. I was back at my job within six weeks of the double mastectomy. I had a few complications, however, and soon I went into kidney failure [in response to the medication and chemo]. On top of that, because the mastectomies were so radical at the time, the insurance didn’t cover me.
Thankfully I have been cancer free since that time but I have had other [skin-related] problems that may be a result of the radiation treatment I received back in the 1970s. I thought the problems were due to age but doctors in the UAE are suggesting it may be related to that period in my life.
I worked with a law firm in Stockholm specialising in silicone-breast litigation cases before moving to Dubai. As a legal consultant, I had met many women with breast cancer. All those years with them made me realise that despite different races, countries, or cultures, we all go through such similar experiences.
I’ve found that there are so many women here who have breast cancer. They may be married, single, independent professional women, or stay-at-home mums, but a campaign like Safe and Sound provides a network to reach out to for help, advice, support and comfort. It’s good to know there are women you can call just to say you’re having a really bad day.
Christiane Kamperman, 48
I discovered my cancer purely by chance. I went to see a doctor in March this year for a thyroid condition and it turned out I had a little lump under my left arm. I thought it was maybe something to do with an ingrown hair and the initial diagnosis was a sebaceous cyst. I was told there was nothing to be worried about. The surgeon asked if I wanted it removed. I wanted it removed in Germany but changed my mind and scheduled it to take place in his Dubai clinic. After the surgery, he said the cyst needed further examination so he said he would be sending it for a biopsy test. When the lab report returned it was a huge shock to me because the doctor called me in and said that it was found to be cancerous. I was stunned.
I have an aggressive cancer so they had to remove 26 lymph nodes from my left side. Now I am in my third month of chemotherapy. I have another nine months of treatment to complete but so far I am doing well. I don’t know the outcome but I am keeping my fingers crossed. I’ve lost a lot of my hair and have been sick quite a bit.
I got involved with Safe and Sound because, as I said, I was so sure the lump was nothing. It wasn’t painful just a tiny bump in my underarm. But I realised it’s so important that women know that even the smallest thing can be something that needs attention. If my cancer had been caught six months down the line, my future could have looked very different.
The message I want women to receive is that it’s better to get the news that nothing’s wrong than to get the news that it is something but you left it too long.
Lilian Colge, 50
It was uncanny, but it was barely a month after I saw a huge poster in BurJuman about breast cancer back in 2003 that I detected a lump in my breast. I remember thinking ‘that won’t happen to me’ but during a routine examination a few weeks later, I discovered the lump in my right breast.
I went to my doctor and thankfully the process to tackle it – surgery – was pretty simple because I was in stage 1. I had a wedding to attend so I even asked if we could postpone surgery for a fortnight! They agreed and after the wedding I was scheduled for the operation. I had to go through chemo but I was lucky because I didn’t need any treatment after that.
I remember that the first day after my chemo, my hair started falling out even as I was on my way out. It was a strange feeling at first but in all honesty, after that I started to enjoy the baldness. My husband Salil sometimes has a clean shave now and I tell him I feel like doing the same.
My family has been extremely supportive and showered me with love. They were all very positive and it helped a lot. The physiological and psychological changes can be trying, but my family – including two kids – was with me throughout.
The same year I was diagnosed with the disease, I met a lady who had also undergone treatment for cancer and she mentioned about the Safe and Sound campaign. I thought it would be a good idea to get involved. Since then I have worked alongside them to tell women how important it is to do regular check-ups. So many women become complacent but it’s so important they don’t brush it aside. Women need to know that this isn’t a taboo subject.
Priyanka Gupta, 52
I was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and it was a shock for me because there was no history of cancer in my family. I have a tendency to put other people first and look after their needs and concerns, so I never really thought about spending some time caring about myself. It was a friend of mine who suggested that it was time I spent a little time on myself and advised me to go for a check-up.
I did a manual check at home and discovered a very small lump in my breast. Worried, I rushed off to the Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. I was lucky because they had a cancellation at the time so the doctor was able to see me immediately. Normally they have a six-month waiting list so I know I was lucky.
They referred me for a CT scan, biopsy and mammogram and when the results came about a week later, it was found the cancer was in the initial stages. I considered myself lucky that I had detected it early. The doctor couldn’t believe I’d felt the lump because it was so tiny – the size of a large mustard seed. However, I still had to have eight sessions of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy.
It was an awful time. I lost all my hair straight away following the chemotherapy but I believe in health not hair, so did not think about it too much. I know for many women, especially in India, hair is their most treasured possession. Initially I bought a wig but then decided against it – I didn’t want to have artificial hair on my head so instead decided to wear beautiful caps. Now my hair has grown back.
I then discovered the BurJuman health club and took up yoga. The experts showed me how to balance my body and mind. It was like a medicine for me. I’m thrilled to be involved with Safe and Sound.
I overcame the disease, now I am healthy. I play golf and I practise yoga regularly. I want women to know that cancer need not be a life sentence. You need to be positive and stay healthy in mind and body to beat the disease.