Updated: Jun 10, 2019
When a friend asked me what's the one article I feel proud to have written, it has got to me this. A few years ago, an Editor from Gulf News rang up asking for interesting ideas for Breast Cancer awareness.
I didn't want to do the run-of-the-mill pieces about dealing with the dreaded disease. Instead I opted for a look at women who have overcome all obstacles and shine as a beacon of light for us all. I'm happy to have interviewed women of various nationalities and walks of life for this piece. We got to know each other in a short span of time and were able to meet up for a special photo shoot for the cover story. Each of the women come from different walks of life but their laughter still resonates in my ears. I learnt a lot from each and everyone of them.
This is the outcome.
Survivors and winners all By Abigail Mathias - Special to GN Focus
Nafisa Mohammad Youssef, Late 50s, India
Nafisa Mohammad Youssef has lived in the UAE since 1975. “I’ve watched this country grow,” she says. “All along I was hale and hearty.” Youssef worked in the media and was one of the few women in the profession at the time. “In 2013, while on holiday in Mumbai I realised something unusual on my left breast,” she says. When she returned, Cancer Week was being organised in Dubai and Youssef signed up for a mammogram at Medcare Hospital. She was soon diagnosed and suggested immediate treatment. Shocked and confused, she decided to get a second opinion. “My sister asked me to return to India and I met Dr Pradhan, a renowned breast cancer specialist. I remember he had three patients to examine at the same time — that’s how common breast cancer has become. He said I’d need surgery.”Throughout the ordeal the doctors were happy to find Youssef optimistic about the outcome. She got back to Dubai for chemotherapy, but was unable to afford it. She bought some of her medication from India and had it administered in Dubai. “Radiation is also an expensive process. I went to India’s Jaslok Hospital for treatment and conducted 25 sessions there.” Looking back, she says, “I pray that this never happens to anyone. Cancer is not easy, of course. You lose your self-esteem but one must take these things in our stride. When I went bald, I wore an abaya and covered my head.” Nafisa says her cancer brought unusual surprises. “My son flew down for a day, to be there for my surgery. That made me very happy,” she says with a smile. It has also reaffirmed her faith. “Breast cancer forced me to look at the bright side. I always tell friends that you should thank God you have breast cancer that can be treated. “It could be a lot worse.”
Naima Thompson, 47, Trinidad and Tobago
“Though I live in the UAE 11 months of the year, it was during my one month at home in Trinidad and Tobago that I received the news that would change my life forever,” says Naima Thompson.“I found a lump in my breast in July 2015. After a number of opinions, doctor visits and research, I had a lumpectomy. The cancer was removed but that was just the beginning of my journey. I’ve since had chemotherapy, radiation, Herceptin treatments, numerous medical visits and a myriad of medication.“When receiving the diagnosis, it seems as if your world is ending and your life is over. You are allowed to embrace the bad days and negativity. But keep yourself grounded enough to know that this is not your actual reality.” Thompson is on the road to recovery. She is working with a personal trainer three times a week to regain her muscular strength.Thompson, a drama teacher, believes more must be done to spread awareness. “We must embrace the reality so that many will not be afflicted with breast cancer. It’s not a taboo subject.” Cancer helped her create a circle of trust. “Living in Dubai as an expatriate can be difficult where your family and the ones you continually turn to for support aren’t necessarily with you. My friends, colleagues, students and parents from the school community rallied together, became my overseas family and transformed themselves into my personal security blanket. Their support was unwavering and unexpected. When I couldn’t drive to the hospital, they became my chauffeurs. When I had no appetite, a bowl of warm soup would appear at my door. “My UAE family supported me no matter what. I also had frequent visits from a dear friend who came all the way from Trinidad to be with me throughout. In retrospect I can’t even imagine getting through this journey without all the support I’ve had.”
Priyanka Gupta, 54, India
Priyanka Gupta has made it her mission to remove the stigma attached to breast cancer. The mother-of-three got treated in Al Ain Hospital only because another patient cancelled an appointment. “The doctor told me to do a CT scan,” she says. The cancer was stage 2 and very aggressive. Gupta is plagued by many health problems but this did not stop her from going to Australia for skydiving, paragliding and parasailing. “Eleven lymph nodes from my right hand were removed after breast cancer surgery and I wasn’t able to lift it — now I am coursing through 18 holes of golf.” She travels to Switzerland for tournaments and values every minute. Gupta believes acting immediately is vital. “A friend of mine was detected with low-grade cancer and succumbed to the condition after failing to opt for the right treatment.” Yoga was the big healer for Gupta during much of the treatment stage. “It made me think positively and helped me move forward. When I lost my hair, it was tough. Later I realised that my health was more important. I never wore a wig,” says Gupta. “Trust in God. It really helps. If you are too negative, even the medicines won’t work.” Her children were all under ten when she was diagnosed. “I fought the cancer for them.”
Irina McGowan, 48, Ireland
Irina McGowan first came to the UAE in 1998. After living across the Middle East, she resided in the Carribean and returned to Dubai over a year ago. The decision turned out to be life-saving. “Medical insurance is restricted in the Carribean, so I postponed my mammogram until we moved here.” When diagnosed with breast cancer, McGowan felt fortunate that it was a small tumour, less than 1cm. “I called my friends and said ‘Get yourself checked now.’ It makes a massive difference when you detect it in time. Somehow cancer makes you the voice of awareness.” She was diagnosed in December 2015. “Hopefully after Christmas I will be finished with treatment. My hair is growing back and I’m feeling like my old self, emotionally. “Sometimes self-examinations are not enough. My tumour was difficult to detect on an ultrasound. The first thing I did when I came back from the clinic was run to Google. Of course while you need to do your research you’ve got to be careful with it,” McGowan says, explaining that there’s a lot of misinformation online. She believes that stress plays a big role in causing cancer. “I was a perfectionist and stressed out before. Now I understand that people love me for who I am.” Breathing and meditation have helped too. Her sons, aged 11 and 13, provided the biggest motivation. “When one is diagnosed with cancer there’s a tremendous feeling of loneliness. You may have friends, but you don’t feel the same. You can get upset or wound up with the medication. You know you have to be strong for your children. They are scared too and they have many questions. Their hugs and kisses are all you need.”
Frida Lobo, 43, India
Frida Lobo was 38 when she found a lump in her breast in 2011. No one in her family had breast cancer, so she was sure it wouldn’t be serious. After a routine check-up, the doctor said she had the disease. She decided to deal with this positively. “I wasn’t about to let my girls see their mother give up,” she says with a smile. As soon as it was safe to travel, Lobo flew to Antarctica with 12 other breast cancer survivors. “I wanted to prove to myself, my girls and women in general that having cancer is not the end of the world. If you have the will and the courage, there is nothing that can stop you from going to the end of the world.“My cancer was infiltrating intraductal high grade, stage 4 with metastasis on breast bone, several lymph nodes and spine,” she explains. “I still recall my gynaecologist breaking the news. I asked, ‘How bad is it?’, and she said, ‘We don’t know yet’. I said, ‘We’ll handle it’.” Frida says the biggest lesson breast cancer gave her is this: “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.”