Cooking for cancer awareness
When British expat Jenny Waite was detected with cancer, her husband David’s initial reaction was shock, but he tried to hide it under the guise of calmness. Two years ago, David was travelling when Jenny informed him that her breast cancer diagnosis had been confirmed.
Jenny, 47 at the time, was detected with early stage pre-invasive tumours in multiple areas in the right breast and was hormone-receptor positive. (If the breast cancer has a significant number of receptors for either estrogen or progesterone, it is considered hormone-receptor positive.)
For David, it was a double whammy; his brother was also extremely ill with Non Hodgkin Lymphoma at the time.
‘After I came down and reviewed the results I felt extremely lucky that it was caught early,’ he recalls.
Right away, the couple decided to be honest and open with their two children Amber and Toby, 15 and 12 at the time. ‘They could tell as soon as I walked in the door that something was wrong. We discussed the issue and they were very aware of what I was going through at every stage,’ says Jenny.
Jenny was tested for a variety of genes as she had a strong family history on both her parents’ sides of several cancers. But breast cancer was a first in the family.
‘I did not have BRCA (a gene which indicates the chances of having breast cancer) but a rarer gene that indicates different possible cancers. So a bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal was done. It was a good decision as an early-stage breast cancer was found in the other breast, both ductal and lobular in several areas as well. I was fortunate that all these were caught just before becoming invasive.’
The mastectomy was scheduled during Christmas holidays and David some took time off work to support Jenny.
Since she could not use her arms freely immediately after the surgery, she had to rely on David to help with dressing, showering and washing her hair. ‘It was hilarious trying to get him to blow dry it into any reasonable style,’ she says.
David also had to clean and dress the wounds and on some occasions when he was ‘a little bit clumsy, I used a few choice words’, she says, with a laugh.
For David and Jenny, coping with the disease was a huge learning curve. ‘Jenny is very independent and did not enjoy being so dependent on me. I had to master the art of being patient. Eventually, you figure out that every situation is vincible,’ he says.
Festive moments were when the family would realise how much the disease had affected them.
‘It was a different kind of Christmas but one I will always cherish,’ says Jenny. ‘I couldn’t cook or even make a cup of tea, so the entire family had to help me. My kids ran around me in a bid to make me laugh, which actually hurt a bit initially. Toby gave me an endless selection of comedies to watch. I had fantastic friends who helped with the kids’ schedules, taking them to school and all their after-school activities. The teachers at their school were hugely supportive and really looked out for them practically and emotionally,’ she recollects.
A few weeks after the operation, Jenny got the cancer-free signal from her doctors. But having realised the importance of awareness and information first-hand, the family has become strong advocates of the cause.
The children take part in fundraising activities for breast cancer – 5k and 10k runs, golf events... They volunteer at Pink Events and helped with a school initiative making pink ribbons and wrapping cushions for breast cancer survivors after surgery. Amber also set up a website called Talk for Support for children whose parents or close family members have a serious disease. Last year, Amber and Jenny cycled more than 400km from Bangkok in Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia to raise awareness and funds for Brest Friends in association with Al Jalila Foundation, where Jenny was a member.
Currently, Jenny is working on a cookbook to be released this month. Titled, In the Pink, it is inspired by fellow survivors at Brest Friends. ‘Many of us meet for coffee every month and conversation often turns to food and health and prevention. So I thought of putting together a cookbook reflecting all the insights gained from our group and the various health professionals that work with us. I approached some fabulous chefs of Dubai and overseas who generously created specific recipes. All proceeds from the book go towards Brest Friends to help fund women who have no funds for treatment, and ongoing research. All recipes have nutrition notes on why certain foods are so beneficial for the body in terms of prevention and healing, provided by Farah Hillou, certified nutritionist at the Chiron Clinic,’ she says.
The family army
For Pakistani expat Sue-Ellen Menezes and her husband Christopher, what they cherish the most these days is quality family time. Having survived stage 3, grade 2 breast cancer, Sue has come a long way. And one of the biggest takeaways she has from the episode is the value of enjoying the little moments in life.
‘Sue was diagnosed in August 2015 and our sons Kyle and Calvin were only 7 and 5. Our main concern was how it would affect them,’ says Christopher.
To shield them from the harsh truth, the children were simply told that Mum was very sick and needed lots of rest. ‘After the first chemo, Sue was very sick for three days. Calvin came in and asked innocently “Mum are you dying?”.
While we were shocked, it also made us realise that we need to tell them what is going on in a way that they would understand,’ he says.
Slowly, the children were introduced to the concepts of chemotherapy, infections and recovery.
After the second chemo, when Sue’s hair started to fall out, Kyle had more questions. ‘We explained to him that the medicine was killing the bad stuff in the body and that the hair would grow back soon. He seemed to take it all in very well,’ says Sue.
Sue’s mother Josephine, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 42, was emotionally devastated when she heard about her daughter. But she quickly became resilient and put on a brave facade.
‘My brothers Adrian and Anthony told me I was the strongest woman they knew (after our mother) and that cancer had messed with the wrong girl. This positive energy helped me a lot in the process of healing,’ says Sue.
Sue had to undergo a complete mastectomy, followed by 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiations.
‘Our main focus was that the kids’ lives and schedules would not be interrupted. Chris would drop off the kids to school in the morning and then one of the mums from Calvin’s class would drop the boys back home. During the chemo days, the other mums would take my kids for a play date so that I could get all the rest I needed. This went on for the entire duration of my treatment,’ says Sue.
Since her remission in 2016, the main focus is on family time. ‘Friday is only for the family, we are trying to catch up on lost time. We go out, enjoy the sunset, dance and laugh together, celebrate even the smallest accomplishments. We have realised that life and happiness comes from within the family and not from the work you do or the money you earn. We have learned to set worries aside and take one day at a time, enjoying every moment with each other,’ says Chris.
Sue has some pieces of advice for women facing the same ordeal: ‘Always be determined to put up a strong fight, and remember no battle can be won alone – an army is needed and that army is your family.’
Faith the healer
When Myrtel Verano was detected with breast cancer her husband Filipino expat Emilio Verano was devastated. As an employee at the Al Jalila Foundation and an integral part of the #PINKtober campaign, Emilio was all too familiar with breast cancer and its implications. But it still came as a shock to him when Myrtel was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer in 2018. ‘What helped on the quick path of recovery was early detection and intervention and a whole lot of faith,’ he says.
A mother of four, Myrtel’s first reaction was denial. ‘The doctor was explaining the condition to me and I just couldn’t fathom the words. After a few minutes, I started to cry; all I was thinking about was my husband and my children,’ says the 44 year old.
The first thing the Veranos did was to gather their kids and explain the situation to them. ‘We did not dwell into much detail as we did not want them to worry too much. Then we told them to include Myrtel in their prayers and ask God for healing,’ says Emilio.
Cancer was not a stranger to the family as Myrtle’s youngest brother struggled with lymphoma at the age of 14. ‘The doctors sent him home saying he had only six months to live but by God’s grace he is turning 34 this year; very much hale and hearty,’ says Myrtel.
The Veranos strived to make their family life as normal as possible. ‘We attended birthday parties, did grocery shopping, went to malls, helped with work at home and did all the other stuff that we regularly do. Myrtel wanted to keep herself busy to distract herself from her troubles,’ remembers Emilio.
Myrtel needed a mastectomy in her right breast and her mother Myrna flew in from the Philippines to be with her. By December 2018, she was declared cancer-free.
As a couple, the tryst with cancer has made them more accepting and understanding of their weaknesses and shortcomings. It also became a catalyst to reaffirm their faith.
‘We started to pray more often and meditate. This gave me the peace and comfort that I really needed,’ says Myrtel.
Moved by his mum’s plight, her 19-year-old-son Myron, a student of Mahe Manipal, Dubai, changed his major from engineering to Biotechnology. ‘He felt he wanted to study more about cancer,’ says Myrtel.
The family has also made some major lifestyle changes, which include following a healthy diet, exercising regularly and using safe cosmetic products.
Emilio is glad that his experience with Al Jalila Foundation could help in the early detection of Myrtel’s cancer. ‘Most women tell themselves that a lump will go away after sometime because they don’t want to accept that it could be cancer. I cannot imagine what would have happened if Myrtel had done the same. I urge all families to ensure that the women in their lives are aware of the probabilities and the consequences of breast cancer,’ says Emilio.
Carpe Diem Moments
Mandy Daswani, 57, has travelled to 15 holiday destinations in the past few years, including Kenya, Morocco, Philippines and the UK. What propelled this travel bug was her stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis in 2013 and the complete recovery two years later.
‘It was like I got a new lease in life and I felt I had to make the most of my second innings by doing what I enjoyed the most,’ says Dubai expat Mandy, who is just back from a yoga retreat in Kerala, India.
Mandy remembers the fateful phone call six years ago. ‘I was at work when the Doctor told me that my biopsy tumour was malignant. I remember breaking down completely and my colleagues and my boss trying to console me, but I felt blank,’ says this Indian expat who has been living in Dubai for 22 years.
At home, she broke the news to her husband Rajan and her two daughters Priya and Sacha. While Rajan remained stoic, Priya was sympathetic and Sacha was already looking up possible treatment procedures.
‘I was the worst patient ever. I would cry and create a fuss during chemo sessions. Chemo is the most tiring and exhausting procedure ever; it kills you and then brings you back to life,’ says Mandy. ‘I saw other patients, especially other mums putting on a happy face and considering these chemo sessions as a day out. While I admire their courage, for me it was unbearable’.
But the family rallied behind her. Rajan took over the schedules of CT scans, chemotherapy, radiation and household chores – cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning.
‘It was like a complete role reversal,’ she states. ‘I knew it was very difficult for a man who had never cooked anything and know nothing about running of a household,’ she says.
Priya’s approach was to be sympathetic yet perseverant. ‘Whenever mum had a meltdown at chemo sessions, I kept reminding her how far she had reached and how she only had to do a little more to complete the session. It was the same approach she took with me whenever I felt dejected as a child,’ says this 30-year-old who has a daughter herself.
For Sacha, 25, her mother had always been her superwoman. ‘Cancer is always a distant term. You never think it will happen to one of your own. I used to believe mum was invincible and then seeing her so dependent on my father for everything was very hard,’ she says.
For 60-year-old Rajan, it was faith that kept him going. ‘Deep down in my heart, I knew she would overcome it and everything would be OK,’ he says.
Soon after the diagnosis, Mandy insisted on travelling to India for a wedding in the family and to London for Christmas. ‘The doctors were not in favour of her going and wanted to start the treatment right away but Mandy insisted that she needed to clear her mind. I did not try to stop her as I knew she needed a break,’ says Rajan.
Currently, Mandy is living life to the full by travelling, hitting the beaches and bonding with her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Naisha (Priya’s daughter). ‘I go for long drives, listen to music, swim and enjoy afternoon tea in my balcony. I have come to realise that these little moments make life more fulfilling. My only concern is that the rest of them are wasting their precious life by worrying and fretting about me, especially Rajan. I don’t think he has taken a holiday for such a long time. I wish they would also learn to cherish the carpe diem moments in life’.
How to support a breast cancer patient
Dr Houriya Kazim, consultant breast surgeon and founder/president of Brest Friends, says women feel like a ‘train wreck’ when they are told they have breast cancer.
‘It brings life as they knew it to a screeching halt.’
As the diagnosis begins to consume them, physically and emotionally, Dr Houriya advises their partner and family members to just let them be.
‘Let them cry or feel low if they have to. Just give them a reassuring hug or listen to their fears,’ she says.
As the UAE’s first female surgeon, Dr Houriya set up Breast Friends in 2005; a support group in Dubai where patients and survivors gather once a month to learn more, socialise and support each other. Al Jalila Foundation partnered with Brest Friends in 2015 to promote early detection of breast cancer, expedite support with medical treatment and research into the epidemiology of breast cancer.
‘Many women are sicker than you ever thought possible and so fatigued that they can barely sit up. Obviously, having friends and family to help with daily things such as childcare and cooking would be helpful in such a situation,’ says Dr Houriya.
‘Sometimes, it’s hard for the carer to know what to do. Especially husbands, who are used to “fixing things” now find themselves with something they can’t fix. The woman is not expecting a fix, but rather just a cuddle and to know he is there. And the treatment is a long one, so it also helps for the carer to take a break from time to time,’ she adds
Support groups also play a big role in the rehabilitation of a patient.
‘Hearing from others who’ve been through it already can be a great source of comfort and support, which is why we started Brest Friends, almost 15 years ago. Survivors help new patients know what to expect and what situations to avoid. Sometimes only the survivor will have that perfect little “tip” that ends up making a big difference in how you get through the whole experience.’