One of the better analogies attributed to a woman is that she is like the teabag; emerging stronger when in hot water. Friday met a few women in the UAE who have braved the battle of breast cancer almost singlehandedly and have since reinvented their lives – while offering other women in their same situation tips to help them face the challenge and emerge victorious.
Lebanese expat Sirine Fadoul had always gone for her yearly wellness checkups meticulously, including mammograms and ultrasounds. So breast cancer was not something she expected in her cards. But in August last year, less than a year after she was given a perfectly clean bill of health, she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer after one of her doctors detected a minute lump that another doctor had failed to find in a previous test. The doctor who found it did so only after an intensive search. ‘My one piece of advice to women is to do a thorough search and take note of even extremely small lumps, bringing it to the notice of your doctor,’ she says.
[Rising to the challenge: how these ladies won the battle against breast cancer]
The diagnosis left her shocked.
‘The immediate emotion that invaded me was of guilt. I started questioning my lifestyle and all the things that I could have done wrong,’ she says.
It’s an emotion many patients identify with the disease experience. ‘The notion of self-inflicted illness due to lack of responsibility is very common among cancer patients,’ says Dr Norbert W Dreier, consultant oncologist at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi. ‘Apart from this, women undergo a range of emotions including intense loss, helplessness and denial. Some of them even think of it as the end of their lives.’
According to Dr Dreier, family and professional support are what these women need the most in order to chart out a treatment plan as soon as possible. ‘Since they are undergoing conflicting emotions like confusion and shock, they need support to help them think clearly and understand the treatment processes.’
Unfortunately, for many women like Sirine who live alone in the UAE, battling the dreaded disease all by themselves is the gruelling reality, and one that can take a toll on their physical and mental well-being.
Take mother-of-four Maria Francia Vizcaya. With her family back in the Philippines, the 42-year-old had been working in Dubai for the past 13 years.
It was by sheer chance she discovered that she had breast cancer.
Last year, she had landed a temporary job in The Dubai Mall and was rushing back to work after her lunch break one afternoon when she was approached by a female doctor at an awareness campaign who tried to cajole her to get herself tested.
‘I told her that my break was almost over and I had to hurry back to work, but she convinced me that it wouldn’t take much time.’
She then asked Maria for her Emirates ID. ‘I told her it was under process, and tried to shy away from the checkup again. However, once again the doctor encouraged me to take the test.’
That would prove to be a blessing.
Maria was ushered into a room that ‘had a lot of pink all around’ and was given a token for a free mammogram and ultrasound test. ‘That’s when I realised that it was the Pink Caravan (an initiative that falls under UAE-based charity Friends of Cancer Patients).’
The result of the test left her weak in the knees for a moment. ‘I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. I think of the doctor now as an angel who convinced me to get myself checked despite all my protests,’ says Maria.
Maria tried to keep a brave face when her doctor explained that she had a highly suspicious malignant lump. ‘My knees were shaking and I was wondering how my kids and my ill mother (back in the Philippines) would take the news,’ she says.
That’s when a bigger worry hit her; how was she going to afford the payment?
While she was trying to pull herself together, the doctor assured her that the Pink Caravan would help her through the whole process. ‘After all those overwhelming emotions, I suddenly felt warm and just whispered, “Thank you God, Please be with me all the way since I have no one else.”’
Maria found herself in church every day after work, ‘just sitting there and feeling completely blank,’ she says.
As Dr Dreier testifies, no case is like the other and every woman deals with this diagnosis in her own way.
For Sirine, the initial feeling of guilt was replaced by the strong urge to take control of the situation and prepare herself for the journey ahead. Since she did not have any family member in the UAE, she went alone for the initial tests and a couple of biopsies.
‘My sister who lives in Lebanon was the first to know about my condition. I wanted her to get checked as well, but deep down I needed her virtual support. She was my rock during the first few weeks as she called daily to check on me.’
Sirine then informed her brothers, who live in Kuwait and Canada. ‘My mother, who was in Canada at that time, was kept in the dark until a couple of days before the mastectomy.’
She still remembers how she prepped herself every time she broke the news to a family member. ‘I needed to sound very strong although I was beyond exhaustion, emotionally and physically.’
Her family resonated her strength ‘and the phone calls were a lot easier than I imagined,’ she recalls.
Fighting cancer sets forth a gamut of emotions – from extreme distress and sadness on one day to surges of positive energy and optimism the other, the women we spoke to say.
Sirine had to undergo four chemo sessions and her friends were with her throughout the process.
‘I preferred not to have my family in Dubai unless absolutely necessary. I especially did not want my mother to witness the side effects and the transformation chemo inflicts on the body, including constant pain, absolute weakness, inability to move or eat, burning eyes and throat, the daily injections, and of course the inevitable hair loss,’ she says.
However, since her last chemo session was a few days before Christmas, she asked her mother to spend the holidays in Dubai because ‘I just needed her to be with me.’
Her best friend, Mohammad, a doctor, helped her process all the medical data and associated terms.
‘Cancer is a complex and layered disease, there is so much to learn about and various action plans to fight it and get rid of it,’ says Sirine. ‘I can’t stress how important it is to know what every medical term signifies. All doctors have best intentions but ultimately our treatment plan should and must be personal.'
Dr Dreier is quick to agree. ‘Patients should have confidence and trust in the treating physician and be informed about red flags. All new findings should be discussed. They should know about possible side effects that can occur during any treatment or procedure. The doctor should reassure them that no question is a silly one,’ he says, adding that patients should also be made aware of new issues during the treatment that would need changes and further discussion.
Help from colleagues
For Maria, a modified radical mastectomy was performed, which removed her left breast completely, and six cycles of chemotherapy and radiation were prescribed.
‘It was difficult for my sister and two nephews (living in Dubai) to change their schedules and be there for me during these sessions but they tried their best. My colleagues sacrificed a lot to help me cope every day at work. One colleague, Erick, adjusted his mealtimes and menu with mine, to show his support. Another, Dina, took my evening shifts as I needed a proper night’s sleep. Rose, a fellow manager, supported me on in-store tasks at work. My close friends Anna and Glenda travelled all the way from Sharjah to be with me especially after chemo sessions. My best friend in the Philippines, Cecil, flew in and accompanied me during my recovery period,’ she says, with gratitude.
Changing her lifestyle drastically, she switched to a healthy diet by giving up processed and sugary foods. Her personal trainer, Ken, tailor-made exercises for her condition.
It was during a chemotherapy session that Maria met a fellow patient, Edralyn Santos Mendoza, who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘She was worried and uneasy on her treatment plan but I shared my journey and even showed her my bald head confidently, because I was beginning to embrace my condition,’ she says.
Edralyn, a taxi driver in Fujairah, was diagnosed in August 2018 with stage 3 aggressive breast cancer. The first thing she told her doctor was that she was willing to do anything to survive as she was one of the main breadwinners of her family of eight.
‘My sister is in a Gulf country and the rest of them are in the Philippines. I wanted to keep my condition a secret from my mother as she had been diagnosed with the same disease 26 years ago and so knew what it entailed,’ she says.
Lynn (as she is fondly called) went through six cycles of chemo all alone. ‘I tried to make my life as normal as possible. Whenever I felt lonely or desperate, I tried to be strong and just focus on my work. Taking people around in my taxi and having short random conversations with them cheered me up and distracted me from my problems,’ she says.
Breast cancer patients who are away from their family and who live the life of an expat often face a lot more hurdles than others when it comes to managing their life.
There were moments aplenty when brave hearts like Sirine admit to having felt lonely and anxious. ‘But I had made the decision from day one to go through this challenge with positivity and optimism. These key words were my sources of encouragement during tough times.’
Connecting with survivors
‘What tremendously helped was meeting other breast cancer fighters and survivors and connecting with them on a much deeper level – that provided me with the comfort I needed,’ she says. ‘I have met some amazing women who went through much tougher journeys with courage and positivity; their energy is contagious and every time I connected with them whether virtually or face to face, I felt so much better. And for that I am thankful and grateful to Al Jalila Foundation and Brest Friends for creating this supportive and nurturing environment.’
Echoing the same sentiment, Maria and her friends at the Pink Caravan have created a special bond, kept in touch and drawn strength from each other. ‘Whenever we met, we cracked small jokes and reassured each other that everything would be alright,’ she says.
The only time things really get to her is when people cast doubt on the authenticity of her situation and thinks she is just pretending, she says. ‘At times like these, my faith in God gives me the strength to carry on. Having a positive outlook in life propels me to continue to fight this battle. When I start to feel desperate, I think of my children as my inspiration. I was able to see them in the Philippines after my chemotherapy treatment when Carol, one of my colleagues, helped me get a ticket to fly home. You can’t imagine how happy I was when I was able to hug my children again,’ she says.
After their success with the ordeal, these women have now become strong ambassadors of spreading awareness of this disease and inspiring other women in the same situation to overcome it.
Sirine says that when she learnt one in eight women would develop breast cancer in the course of her life, ‘I felt that it’s my responsibility to talk about my journey and raise awareness whenever possible.
‘Unfortunately, cancer is still considered a taboo topic, and a lot of people are uncomfortable discussing it. I find this absurd. This disease is killing people and the best way to survive it is to detect it early and to detect it early we need to talk about it all the time and provide women with free screenings all year long.’
She insists that it is important to spread the word by organising awareness sessions. ‘I started it at my work where 50 women received free screenings and 17 were referred for free mammograms. I also spoke at several events and to the media, started a blog and an Instagram account, and organised a fundraising event,’ she says.
‘Most survivors face another challenge: on how to deal with post treatment,’ explains Sirine. ‘The concept of time changes and therefore our priorities and our plans for how to optimise the next phase of our lives also change drastically. I’m very optimistic about this next phase of my life as I only see opportunities and feel that I am ready for anything life throws at me; the negative and the positive.’
As for Lynn, the journey has made her more spiritual. ‘We have to trust God who has a plan for everything. I gained so many friends during my chemo sessions in the hospital. I found happiness in this journey and have become stronger than before,’ she says.
Maria’s aim is to change the things she can and accept things she cannot. ‘Right now, my focus is to ensure the good health of my family and to educate as many people as I can to take care of their health. I may not be an expert, but I’m hoping that my experience can shed light on the fact that cancer is not a death sentence,’ she says.
– To follow Sirine and her journey with cancer, visit @sirinefad on instagram.