Samar Amer with her husband and three daughters: Finding joy in small moments. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the battle against the disease is invariably long and arduous. The journey can take a huge toll not only on the patient, but also on the family members. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes, the caregivers and other family members themselves may get so overwhelmed that they also require extra care. And this can only add to an already challenging situation at home.

Cancer survivors, who heavily rely on the support of their loved ones during diagnosis, treatment and thereafter, say it pains them doubly to see their families go through a traumatic time. According to them, it is common for patients to experience fear, anger and frustration, even guilt and shame, when they battle cancer. As such, the response of their loved ones becomes a crucial factor in managing their play of emotions.

‘We faced countless hurdles…but we persevered’

Egyptian expat Samar Amer, 44, was diagnosed with cancer in the right breast in February 2021. As a college department head and teacher in creative sciences, she was a working woman taking care of her three daughters here in the UAE, while her husband Amer held a job in Saudi Arabia.

“The cancer was aggressive and I was advised six sessions of chemotherapy before any surgery, so decisions had to be taken quickly. It was not easy as my daughters began to panic. They feared for my life and Amer was also away,” she recalled.

But as her husband said, “In the face of adversity, the family demonstrated unwavering strength, unity and resilience during the challenging journey. It was a journey that tested the bonds of our love, and through it all, we emerged even stronger.”

He said, “We took on the roles we had to play with grace and determination, never allowing the disease to define things. Our unity was palpable, as we attended every doctor’s appointment together, researched treatment options as a team, and took turns providing care and emotional support. The strong foundation of love and communication proved to be a vital asset in the battle against this formidable adversary.”

Samer Amer with her friend Lobna Essam (left), Dr Arun Karanwal, Specialist Medical Oncologist, Prime Hospital and a nurse after her last chemotherapy session. Image Credit: Supplied

Samar said, “We faced countless hurdles, from the emotional strain of chemotherapy to the financial burdens of medical bills, yet we persevered. Our ability to find joy in small moments, support one another during tough times, and maintain a hopeful outlook was an inspiration to all who knew us.”

She said she was very thankful to her friend Lobna Essam, whom she considers family, for lending her shoulder to her and accompanying her on her hospital visits while the rest of the family juggled with their commitments.

She said she had to undergo 17 more chemo sessions after the surgery, besides 30 rounds of radiation, while the hormonal treatment still continues. “But I have turned the corner and would not have been able to without the support of my loved ones,” she added.

‘My main worry was how I would tell my loving family about my diagnosis’

Dubai-based Lebanese expat Sulima Hallak, 43, can never forget the dark days of her diagnosis in 2016. She had moved to Sharjah with her husband and three-and-half-year-old daughter to take up a job eight months earlier.

She said she happened to find a lump in her left breast through self-examination and decided to go to a doctor in Beirut, her hometown, for a check-up. “I was by myself when I received a call from the doctor. He had bad news for me after the biopsy. But more than being concerned about myself, I was worried about how I would tell my loving family,” she said.

Sulima Hallak says the most difficult moment for her during her battle against cancer was when the sight of her shaven head terrified her daughter, who was just over three at the time. And when the little one came around with help from her dad, it made a world of difference. Image Credit: Supplied

Hallak, who first called her sister, didn’t have the heart to wake up her husband and tell him about it. “But it had to be done and when I called him, he was in the middle of a dream. My news must have surely turned it into a nightmare. But he kept his calm.”

She said her mother, on the other hand, was completely shattered by her diagnosis. “We knew we had a problem on our hands. So I decided to be stern with her and threatened her that I would never see her again if she even shed a single tear. Thankfully, that worked, at least she stopped crying in front of me,” said Hallak.

She said her cancer, which was fairly aggressive, had to be addressed without any delay. This meant she had to take most of her chemo sessions in the UAE. “I had to have 16 sessions of chemo three weeks apart at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain but going there with my daughter was not an option. So my husband would stay back with her in Sharjah, while my aunt from Oman would drive down specially to Sharjah and take me to Al Ain. A friend of mine would also take me there. I am truly indebted to them.”

She said her husband, who once found her grappling with her hair loss after a chemo session, convinced her to shave her head. “He did it himself and that meant a lot to me,” she said, but what followed broke her heart.

She said her husband had tried to prepare their daughter to see her in her bald state but when she did, she ran out of the room.

“She was terrified to see my shaven head and wouldn’t come and hug me. My heart went out to her. It was hard for both of us. She insisted that I wear a scarf when we went out. But again, my husband ensured there were positive vibes and by the next weekend, she was ready to accept me as I was. This gave me a lot of strength and solace. I am so grateful that it’s all behind me now,” said Hallak.

‘Caregivers need to find a balance too’

Khawla Rashid, head of Beneficiary Support at Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP) says caregivers and family members of cancer patients suffer as much as the patients. “They have challenges too and need attention. They could be a spouse, parent, sibling or friend and suddenly they are required to make adjustments in their routines – whether at work, school, college or at home,” she said.

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According to FOCP, According to her, family members can get very overwhelmed with all that they are going through as family, but they must guard against bottling up their feelings. Speaking to support groups helps a lot. Image Credit: Supplied

The medical expenses and moral support that patients require can be a stress factor for the entire family, she added.

“Under these circumstances, caregivers must consciously try and find a balance between the new calling and their regular work or study routines,” she said.

According to her, family members can get very overwhelmed with all that they are going through as family, but they must guard against bottling up their feelings. “They should talk to counsellors, other cancer survivors and their families and support groups like ours. That helps a lot.”

Khawla said positivity is extremely essential in a home that is battling cancer. “Patients needs a lot of strength. So those around them must be able to empathise with their feelings and make an effort to remind them of the good things in life and make them feel positive.”