Dubai: Claire Grainger has innumerable granulomas or tumours all over her body: four in her brain, an entire bunch in her cervix and more in her liver, pancreas and kidney. She is just 36 years old, but has had 35 surgeries so far.
Her immunity is compromised and she is on medication, including steroids and neuropathic painkillers. Every week, she takes a chemotherapy drug and every eight weeks she gets infusion treatment to stem the inflammatory cells invading her every organ.
But if there's one thing intact, it's her sense of humour.
"I had five more tumours in my spleen, but they were removed. Actually, I don't have a spleen any more, just a row of staples running across my left lung. And I set off airport alarms," said the Dubai-based British national. "No one believes me when I say I have metal inside because I have no tell-tale scars."
That's a telling revelation. Diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma - Stage 4 sarcoidosis and neurosarcoidosis - Grainger's life is a constant struggle. The inflammatory disease has no known cause or cure and is associated with many secondary conditions.
Pneumonia, polyarthritis, stroke, meningiomas, skin cancer - Grainger's been through them all. And although traditional sarcoidosis itself has a mortality rate of less than five per cent, the complications can prove fatal - as was the tragic case of American actor-comedian Bernie Mac.
In Grainger's case too, doctors back home in Liverpool, UK, had given her just six months to live in 1999. She was 23 then. But 13 birthdays later, she is still alive with an amazing story to tell. A story of indomitable spirit, infectious enthusiasm and a heady sense of purpose.
A top-notch legal consultant with a degree in Civil Engineering and Construction Management followed by two postgraduate diplomas in Law and Legal Practice from the UK, Grainger is widely sought after for her advice on regulatory framework and utility and infrastructure projects.
She has worked on some of the most iconic projects both back home and in the region. Before becoming a solicitor, she volunteered her services as an engineer at the Royal Armouries in Leeds which houses the Crown Jewels.
She has also provided legal advice on Burj Khalifa and Dubai Metro during their construction. A noted speaker, she talks on sukuk and infrastructure projects through public-private partnerships. Currently, she works as a senior partner with a local law firm and juggles several tasks, negotiating and drafting contracts, mediating, arbitrating and preparing for litigation.
Believe it or not, Grainger has managed all of this while she has been under treatment, keeping her dates with doctors, subjecting herself to tests and scans and taking heavy doses of medication.
She was midway through her lower law programme in the UK when she was diagnosed with the first tumour in her pancreas. She was forced to shift to night school as she had to make time for treatment and take up a part-time job to pay her way through.
"It was Dubai that saved me," says the highly accomplished Grainger who took up a job in the city in 2006 when life back home turned into a living hell. For eight years, she had been battling with what was still a mystery disease as doctors couldn't tell what was wrong. They had found the pancreatic tumour all right, but when it went dead, they had no clue what they were up against and dismissed her symptoms, saying everything was fine.
Grainger said she was constantly in and out of hospitals where she had to go through painful and invasive procedures. "I was unwell all the time, ached and itched all over and felt excruciatingly fatigued. But the doctors just gave up, dismissing it as stress, overwork, perhaps even a figment of my imagination."
It was only when she came to Dubai that the GP she registered with suspected some form of lymphoma. She was also diagnosed with juvenile osteoporosis, which would not have reduced her bones to the state of an 83-year-old had it been diagnosed when she was younger.
"I am ever so thankful to doctors in the UAE. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be alive," she said, recalling how the GP referred her to the Tawam Hospital in Al Ain where they removed her spleen and investigations confirmed sarcoidosis. Arriving at the diagnosis was not easy as unlike most other sarcoidosis patients whose lungs are affected, Grainger had no lung involvement.
One of her doctors, Dr Bhavna Khan, Specialist Rheumatologist at Medlink Clinic, said, "When people come to know they have sarcoidosis, they become depressed and go into denial. They worry about the side-effects. But not Claire — she is a fighter and has faced the problem with a positive approach. We've managed to bring down her medications and she is responding very well."
Grainger's mantra is simple. "Why let an illness take over?" she said. "You must remember that your illness doesn't define you. You define yourself. As soon as you start living for your illness, it takes over and you stop living. So just live for yourself."
Little wonder then that she lives it up. And the more challenging it is, the better. "In fact, I've done a Tom Cruise before he did, except that I was jumping across the petals of the Burj Khalifa without a safety harness," she said, recalling the time she climbed three storeys from the 99th floor on a wooden ladder pinned to the tower during construction. It didn't matter that she was on steroids, a neuropathic pain inhibitor and methotrexate around that time.
Grainger said despite her demanding schedule, she makes time for golf, coffee and friends. Of course, there's Charlotte too, the five-month-old Maltese pup that follows her everywhere, including her 34th floor office in a Dubai Media City tower.
"Maybe I should get her a pink coat with our company logo because she is good for our marketing," she said. "People in the elevator ask for Charlotte if I happen to be alone."
Grainger said she was lucky she had a close group of friends. "I can't praise and thank them enough as they are there 110 per cent for me. They turn up at my door if they don't hear from me for more than 48 hours," she said, adding that their support also means a lot to her parents and brother back home.
And what about a life partner? "I am still looking," came the prompt reply.