Abu Dhabi: A cancer diagnosis usually spells much fear, and the subsequent battle with the disease can be even scarier.
But finding the cancer early can help many a patient survive, especially with the aid of medical advances. In particular, childhood cancer survivors often go on to share their stories of hope and triumph, and every February 15, on the occasion of International Childhood Cancer Day, the world pays tribute to them and their families.
This year, three brave warriors in the UAE who have fought and defeated cancer have shared their experiences in a bid to inspire other young patients.
Simple doctor visit
Khamis Abdul Khader, 12, an Indian student, was only nine when he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer that occurs in the bones or the surrounding soft tissue. The diagnosis came after an unsuspecting visit to the doctor for some shoulder pain the young boy had been experiencing.
Khamis said his uncle first explained the disease to him. Later, along with his grandmother, he went to the hospital and met his doctor, who reassured them and offered support.
The treatment, comprising chemotherapy and radiation sessions, lasted for a year and eight months across two hospitals – Tawam Hospital in Al Ain and Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi city. It was a difficult journey for Khamis, who was admitted to the hospital several times with fever and mouth ulcers. Despite the challenges, he managed to maintain a positive outlook.
“I know Allah loves me, and I was certain He would cure me through the doctors and nurses, who are angels on earth. Today, after my treatment, I feel normal and happy. I want to tell other children who are suffering not to worry and have faith. Allah loves us so much, and he has sent doctors and nurses to care for us,” Khamis said.
Khamis, who was diagnosed during the COVID-19 pandemic, was unable to attend school as he sought treatment. But beating cancer has inspired the Grade 4 student at GEMS Winchester School in Dubai to continue working towards his dream of becoming a police officer one day.
Like Khamis, Declan Griffiths, a British student in Abu Dhabi, has also successfully overcome Ewing sarcoma. But his diagnosis came at a particularly testing moment, just as he was set to appear for his A-level examinations.
A Year 13 student at the British School Al Khubairat, in Abu Dhabi, Declan found a lump on his thigh that was a sign of the sarcoma. He then had to undergo eight months of chemotherapy, even as his friends finished their school-leaving exams and moved on to further studies.
“I planned to go to university in September, but it was impossible. I needed to put my life on hold for a year and accept that I would join university a year later. This was difficult for me. Most of my friends left Abu Dhabi in September to go to various universities, and I have been left behind,” said Declan.
Despite losing a year academically, Declan is now in remission. Having completed his exams, he is all set to start university in September 2023.
Declan’s parents said the psychological support their son had received as he battled cancer had shown him that he was not alone in his fight. He now looks forward to providing similar reassurance to others in the initial stages of cancer.
“I didn’t think of myself as a survivor at the time because undergoing the treatment was my only option. Now that my hair is growing back and life is slowly returning to normal, I feel like it is a hardship and an experience that helps to put the other difficulties of teenage life into perspective. You have to live every day and do what you enjoy. Having cancer helps one realise that you should not spend any [real] time worrying about schoolwork and everyday problems,” Declan said.
While the exact causes of childhood cancer are not fully known, the diseases are often treatable, with good outcomes.
Muhammed Shayan, a Grade 6 student from India at the Abu Dhabi Indian School, is another cancer survivor in the UAE. After being diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, he underwent treatment for six months.
Muhammed recalls how the support of his family and friends helped him through the toughest fight of his life.
“I went through a low period during the treatment. Apart from severe pain, I experienced vomiting, hair loss, and skin colour changes. But the support of my family, who was with me throughout the process, helped me power through. My classmates were also supportive, and helped me catch up with the classes I missed during the occupational therapy sessions,” he said.
For the young survivor, the entire experience has also been a lesson in improving his patience.
Early diagnosis, treatment
Dr Mansi Sachdev, consultant for paediatric haematology, oncology and bone marrow transplant at the Burjeel Medical City, explained that good outcomes are possible with early diagnosis and treatment of many childhood cancers.
“Cure rates for most cancers in children are much higher than for adult cancers. Children’s bodies are more resilient, and can withstand the side effects of cancer treatments much better than adults. Through collaboration, protocol-based treatment and clinical trials, common childhood cancers like acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, once considered fatal, now have a very high cure rate in many developed countries,” she said.
While overcoming a disease like cancer can shape the lives of survivors, it also teaches powerful life experiences to those around them.
“Apart from early diagnosis and good care, an optimistic mindset and faith go a long way in helping patients navigate the challenges of the disease. As a doctor, working with children who have cancer is truly humbling. In my profession, I see stories of courage and compassion every day, and there’s always something to be grateful for,” said Dr Zainul Aabideen, consultant paediatric and head of paediatric and paediatric haematology and oncology at the hospital.
Symptoms to watch out for
The American Cancer Society recommends seeking medical attention for certain symptoms in children, as they could point to childhood cancer. They include:
• an unusual lump or swelling
• unexplained paleness and loss of energy
• easy bruising or bleeding
• an ongoing pain in one area of the body
• unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
• frequent headaches, often with vomiting
• sudden eye or vision changes
• sudden unexplained weight loss