At first Randa Mushtaha was reluctant to join Brest Friends, a breast cancer support group in Dubai. A year after her own diagnosis, she felt she had enough of the ‘C’ word in her life. But as a friend had insisted, Randa, a 49-year-old Jordanian based in Dubai, went to attend one of the group’s meetings. "In the first few moments itself, I felt amazing, amidst other women who had gone through the breast cancer journey. I was no longer alone, there were so many shared experiences and possibilities. I felt their hands holding me and walking alongside. I came back inspired and very hopeful," she tells Friday.
That was in 2015. Today, six years later, Randa is an active member of the group, often attending meetings, speaking at corporate events spreading awareness about screening and early diagnosis.
Meeting once monthly since it was established in 2005 by Emirati Dr Houriya Kazim, Brest Friends helps patients and survivors to meet, learn, socialise and support each other. With its community of over 500 members from various nationalities, Brest Friends and other such breast cancer support groups, provide a much-needed sisterhood of emotional and mental support, that women say is like a silver lining in the dark clouds.
"No one expects to get cancer. It is such a shock to those who are diagnosed. Breast cancer support groups fill the gap during these very difficult times, before the treatment and after it," points out Christine Cahoob, 59, who is part of Bosom Buddies, an Abu Dhabi-based support group.
In 2019, when Christine was detected with grade II breast cancer, one sleepless night, exhausted from the operation and the treatment, she had found Bosom Buddies online. She filled in the contact form and received a call soon after from Radwa Helal, one of the core group members. "She was like a breath of fresh air. Such understanding that really helped me. The group continues to be an integral part of my life two years on," shares Christine.
Founded in 2003, by a small group of breast cancer survivors, Bosom Buddies offers support to anyone who has been diagnosed. The Abu Dhabi-based multicultural group, with members from many nationalities, used to meet monthly at several venues in the capital, before the pandemic. Currently they have an active WhatsApp group and meet virtually. Radwa is one of the members who receives the first call. "Today when I get a phone call from a newly diagnosed patient, overwhelmed with treatment and emotional upheaval, for me it’s payback time. Once I was in her shoes and someone in Bosom Buddies had shown me the light. And now I am doing that for another woman," says Radwa, 42, a paediatrician.
Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP), a non-profit organisation based in Sharjah, also runs several WhatsApp groups, webinars, workshops and virtual survival forums for cancer patients, including for those with breast cancer. "Through our WhatsApp groups and virtual meetups, patients and their families connect with others sharing similar experiences. We see that these meetings help them relieve stress, loneliness and gain mental strength," tells Majed Mohamed, Executive, Beneficiary Support Services, FOCP.
In a support group, women find a safe environment to express their fears and challenges without judgement. Discussions centre around recent research, specific advice on medication, healthy eating habits, exercise and tips on self-care. "We discuss many things – sometimes our medical situations or ways to communicate our journey to our kids. We also talk about our rollercoaster moods, which could vary from utmost peace to complete anger, plus comparing notes on natural remedies, meditation and nutrition," explains Rana Baydoun, a Dubai resident and breast cancer survivor. Rana is part of not one but two support groups – Brest Friends and an informal one with six women. Her informal group meets once a month or they call each other every few weeks. "I knew with them around I was not alone in this. Having the support group was a very important factor in my healing," she shares.
Often the groups offer practical solutions on bothersome effects of the treatment that family members and the medical fraternity are perhaps unable to address. "What is the best solution to cover our heads during the hair loss, the places to buy wigs or turbans or make-up products that can be used to draw eyebrows or whether to take antidepressants are just a few solutions we learn through the group," says Randa.
Survivors say people assume that once the treatment is over they can get back to normal life but the truth is that they are affected mentally for years. "Whenever we talk about breast cancer we talk about the outside story – the chemo, the hair loss – but there are many hidden aspects of the journey that equally matter, including family support and mental well-being," affirms Randa.
Eventually these warriors are role models for each other, sharing perspectives, living through the journey gracefully and motivating the newly diagnosed patients that there is life after cancer.
Majed recalls a recent instance when they received a harried call from a woman who had just been diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. "She was feeling hopeless, scared and nervous. We connected her virtually to a survivor. Initially she was not ready to accept her situation but as she formed a bond with the survivor, she felt calmer. She is now in a stable health condition. Her entire outlook towards life has changed. Cancer is not a death sentence, it is an obstacle you can overcome," says Majed.
Bosom Buddies, Abu Dhabi
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Brest Friends, Dubai
Friends of Cancer Patients, Sharjah
Phone: 06 506 5542