Lize De Jonge Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: When Lize De Jonge read about breast cancer in a magazine in 2002, she realised the symptoms mirrored her own. Armed with this information, the South African expatriate went to her doctor who immediately ruled out breast cancer because of her age. Lize did not budge and requested for tests to be done.

“I was still very very young. I was 24. The results revealed that I had nipple cancer called Paget’s disease in its early stages,” Lize, 39, project manager for Pink Caravan, told Gulf News.

Paget’s disease of the nipple is a rare form of breast cancer, according to breastcancer.org. It affects less than five in 100 breast cancer cases in the US. The cancer cells collect in or around the nipple and affects the ducts of the nipple first before spreading. It often presents itself as a dryness of the skin.

Lize said her doctors in South Africa did not expect that she would have breast cancer at that young age so they just did not want to just send her for all the screenings and mammograms.

Lize then started her treatment, including a mastectomy and six cycles of chemotherapy.

“As a very young woman, it was a lot to take in but I put a lot of my faith into the hands of the doctors who were treating me. It’s a very different experience being a patient going through the treatment because I was also a supporter.”

Lize lost her younger sister also to breast cancer seven years ago. She was 25 when she passed away.

“Unfortunately, her cancer was far more aggressive than mine. We had two very different types of cancer.

“The interesting part there was because she had gone through my episodes with me, she turned to me when she felt a lump and asked me what I thought.”

Nine out of 10 lumps are benign. But if women or men feel one, they should still see a doctor.

The sisters went straight for screening and the lump turned out to be cancerous.

Lize said men and women in the UAE are fortunate to have a nationwide programme for free breast cancer screening and early detection like the Pink Caravan Ride, something they did not have back home when they were found to have breast cancer.

“In my country and in many places, without a screening programme, you normally won’t go for a standard check-up with your doctor in your 20s. This is not common.”

Having joined the Pink Caravan five years ago, Lize said teaching women and men to do regular breast self-examination is important so they can take control of their health.

“If I had these screenings available to me in my 20s, I think they would have picked up that there was an abnormality at that point. But in the absence of having a screening programme, you have to rely on yourself to go to doctors and insist that they do further investigation if you feel it’s necessary.

“Early screening is the difference between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy, potentially. If we can fight cancer in its early stages, a very non-invasive surgery does not always require chemotherapy or other intravenous treatment. So really don’t ignore early signs and symptoms.”

Cancer can happen to anyone at any age group, whether he or she is living a healthy lifestyle or not. The main factor is one’s genetic composition, like Lize who has the Li Fraumeni syndrome, a rare inherited genetic cancer disorder that greatly increases one’s risk of developing cancer during their lifetime.

Just last year, Lize felt a lump again on her other breast. But it’s not the recurrence of the Paget’s disease Lize had in 2002. It’s a different type of breast cancer that Lize is overcoming now.

Lize has recently completed majority of the treatments and is on the way to recovery.

Having battled two cancers over the last 15 years, Lize said her journey has been meaningful.

“I’m feeling strong and good and it’s very exciting and very meaningful to work on a project like the Pink Caravan because I get to speak to a lot of ladies and understand where the patients are coming from and understand their concerns because I, too, have the same concerns.

“We have done a lot of work in making it socially acceptable to speak about cancer. We do not want people to feel alone and ostracised if they have cancer. There are many women and men who will receive them and support them with open arms. They don’t have to go through this alone.”