It was a gloriously bright sunny day in Abu Dhabi; the weather was mild and the flowers in bloom.
Two women were sitting on a bench, catching up, reminiscing and laughing.
They looked a picture of health and no one would have been able to tell that they once faced the most terrifying ordeal for any woman: both of them had breast cancer.
“I was diagnosed in 2006 when I went for my usual check-up at the doctor. They found there was something irregular and I was told not to worry, that all was okay and that the lump was benign. But it wasn't the case.
"It was only after I decided to get a second opinion that it came to light that it was malignant and within a week, the tumour was removed,'' recalled Pamela Fisher, a British expatriate.
Her friend Gehan Weeler from Egypt was diagnosed with the disease about six years ago. Both are on the Faculty of English at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi Women's College.
“The thing that made me burst into tears at the doctor's office was when he said: ‘You're going to lose your hair' — rather than when he told me that I had cancer. That news was very shocking, but for some reason it was the hair thing that really made me panic,'' Gehan said.
The women acknowledge that while it was wonderful to have the support of their families and friends, they knew they would feel very lonely during their treatment.
“Even though my husband was very supportive — he came with me to every treatment and held my hand — I would still feel lonely because I didn't know anyone who was going through the same thing. Also, our children were young at the time and we wanted to protect them,'' explained Gehan.
After both women began losing their hair, each took a different path to conceal their sudden baldness. Pamela received a wig from the National Health Service when she visited the UK after her tumour was removed.
“I came back and my students didn't notice that I hadn't had a haircut. That I had exactly the same hairstyle for the whole semester, which is 20 weeks,'' she laughed.
Gehan opted for covering her head with various scarves that happened to be in fashion at the time.
“I wore my scarves everywhere, even in the swimming pool and saw other women wearing the same style. When I went to Greece with my family, similar scarves were being sold on the street. Luckily, it was fashionable and unless you looked very closely, you couldn't notice that there was no hair underneath the scarf,'' she added.
One thing that they both agree on was once they arrived home, off went the scarf and off went the wig.
“My husband accepted losing my hair as part of my condition. I must admit, once I got home I took the wig off straightaway. My husband's bald for goodness' sake and it's no issue for him — that's not fair is it?'' Gehan said.
On the advice of their doctors, both women underwent lumpectomy — a procedure which involves the removal of the tumour and some breast tissue — rather than having a mastectomy — where the breast or a portion of it is removed.
The experience taught them to be more alert about their lifestyle; Pamela drinks only red bush tea and decaffeinated coffee while Gehan reads up on health and nutrition facts, and has quit a 20-year smoking habit. They both say they are ready to enjoy life more.
Key to their emotional recovery has been the support of an Abu Dhabi group called Bosom Buddies, founded by Gehan's friend and fellow breast cancer survivor, Noorin Kemp, a Scottish expatriate who now lives in Canada.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she approached Gehan and explained that she wanted to start a support group.
Soon afterwards, Bosom Buddies was born with just a handful of members and has since expanded to become an important network.
The group helps members — regulars and newcomers — with a wide range of concerns and also organises fun activities.
“When you're facing something like cancer it makes you appreciate everything so much more; you realise how wonderful life is and you grasp it,'' Pamela said.
“It's just the same as when I was carjacked in Uganda. I could have died any second but they didn't pull the trigger and I just went around for a week as though my feet weren't touching the ground.''
“I was looking at leaves and found myself studying all kinds of unusual things because it was so wonderful to be alive.
“I don't know how many lives I've got,'' she added, pretending to count with her fingers, “I've been through several,'' Pamela said.
Alive and kicking
Life has gone back to normal now. Gehan has been cancer-free for over five years and Pamela for two but both stress that it's important for women to have constant checks and to see a doctor immediately once they feel anything out of the ordinary.
Chances are that it will be benign but as they say, why take the risk?
And when they feel the need to talk to people who really understand the range of emotions survivors go through — they know a group of local women who will be on hand.
Sisters in arms
Bosom Buddies is a private breast cancer support group whose members come from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds across the UAE.
They meet once a month at various locations to catch up on each other's latest news and to provide support and advice.
They also participate in diverse programmes and activities.
The group can be contacted at: email@example.com