Abu Dhabi: The journey has been long and arduous, but breast cancer survivor Shabnam Masood stands strong.
Speaking on the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness - October - the primary school teacher in Dubai said those battling the dreaded disease have “no choice but to fight”.
“Even if cancer is a scary word, you give yourself a chance at rebirth, especially if you detect the cancer early. Take the case of my mother, who had it so much easier when her cancer was detected in Stage 0,” Masood told Gulf News.
Mother’s brush with cancer
In 2000, Masood’s mother, who is now 78, was diagnosed with small cancerous nodule. She underwent a single mastectomy, and was able to carry on with her life without having to undergo the chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormonal treatments that make fighting cancer especially difficult.
Given her mother’s brush with the disease, Masood screened herself regularly after turning 40 years. And in 2018, doctors found something suspicious.
“I was then 49 years old, and my oncologist suggested an MRI. The cancer was not detected, so I underwent a mammogram. Again, it did not show the presence of any cancerous cells. But my doctor wasn’t convinced, so I underwent two ultrasound exams. These again showed something suspicious, so my oncologist suggested a Tru-cut biopsy,” Masood said.
During her vacation two months later, Masood underwent the biopsy, and it revealed malignant cells that had spread to her right underarm. Masood had Stage 2 breast cancer.
“Between May and July, the cancer had already advanced. It was very aggressive, and surgical removal was necessary. Aiming for a lumpectomy, the surgeons had to carry out a single mastectomy, and also remove 32 nodes from my underarm,” Masood said.
Coming back to the UAE, she then embarked on a course of chemotherapy – 10 sessions delivered in a 21-day cycle. After eight months, there were 18 sessions of radiotherapy to deal with, and Masood was then put on hormone therapy.
Masood had essentially beat that bout of cancer, but there was a long way to go. “I was surprised to find out that the chemotherapy and radiotherapy were only three to four per cent of the total journey. The hormone therapy was even more essential,” she said. So began the months of hormone therapy, and Masood has been at it for three years now.
Less discussed struggles
Other aspects of the fight that are not generally discussed are the side effects. “The hair loss during chemotherapy is well-known because it is visible, and the nausea is also generally acknowledged. But there are other things. For instance, I ended up with burns from the radiation. There was also the disfigurement from the mastectomy, and the forced menopause from the chemotherapy,” Masood said.
More painful and long-lasting is the joint pain and stiffness Masood experiences every morning. “It is a struggle to get out of the bed and my right hand aches a lot, at least until I get to school, where I forget everything,” Masood said.
Masood’s endometrium also thickened as a result of her hormones, so she has to regularly undergo hysteroscopies to ensure there is no cancer in her ovaries.
Throughout it all, Masood has remained strong and courageous. “My parents – 80-year-old father and 78-year-old mother – have been especially concerned since the diagnosis, so I have to stay strong. My son was also only 16 years old when I was diagnosed, but he was supportive all the way. My cousin and family members in Dubai have also been bee there for me,” Masood said.
The teacher added that she also been fortunate to have considerate employers at GEMS Cambridge International School in Dubai, and a team of doctors and nurses at Zulekha Hospital who have become like family.
Like other survivors, whom she connects with at Jalila Foundation’s Brest Friends support group or through the Pink Ladies WhatsApp group, Masood said she is also primed to deal with a relapse.
“Many of my friends have dealt with relapses, and come out strong. We tell ourselves that we’ve done it once and seen our lives transform, and we’ve taken it on the chin. So we can do it again,” Masood said.
In the meantime, Masood works to create awareness at her workplace, urging students to ensure that their family members continue screening for the disease. At the Pink Day organised at the school, students put up a play to highlight how every individual can be at risk from breast cancer, and heard from survivors about their journeys. The schools also raised about Dh15,000, donating the amount to the Al Jalila Foundation. Students also donated hair to a charity that helps create wigs for cancer patients.
Masood spoke highly of the students’ efforts, and urged women around her to get screened. “We cannot let fear defeat what chance we may have to beat cancer. In fact, we may have a good chance at beating the cancer if we find it early enough. Besides, the journey is one of rebirth,” she added.