Abu Dhabi: Increasing numbers of women affected by breast cancer in the UAE are coming out in the open and speaking about their battle with the condition and extending support to other victims.
Breast cancer is alarmingly on the rise in the country and constitutes 22 per cent of the UAE female population.
Housewives Shareefa Sayyed, Malaysian/Emirati, 47 and Sada Okasha, Palestinian, 55, met at a hospital in 2003 where they were receiving daily radiation for one-and-a-half months after undergoing chemotherapy for six months to help stop the spread of the disease.
Once the therapy was over, both women decided to take part in Ladies of Courage, a breast cancer support group.
Shareefa, a mother of four girls and two boys, recalls the time she was told she had a malignancy and had to undergo partial mastectomy, which involves removal of a part of the breast containing the tumour and some of the normal tissue that surrounds it.
"I couldn't see my children for eight months during the chemotherapy. I lost 14 kilogrammes and developed a mouth infection due to my weak immunity system and was constantly sick. The only factor that kept me going was the support from my husband and children, who kept encouraging me to fight on till the end," she said.
Her biggest struggle, similar to Sada's, was societal misinterpretation of the condition. "My in-laws asked me to keep silent about my disease, as if I should feel ashamed and that's exactly why many women are silent about having breast cancer," added Shareefa.
Sada discovered a lump under her arm by coincidence and had to surgically remove a lump on her right breast and under her arm.
"My family doctor was in tears while breaking the news about my malignancy. Since I'm a religious and positive person, I took the news lightly and instead of dealing with my own emotions I ended up calming my doctor down," said Sada.
Sada made the best out of her stay while in hospital and befriended other cancer patients in her ward. "I taught them various handicrafts and gave them a few cookery classes. That's when I met up with this drama queen, a constant flow of tears running from her eyes and non-stop complaining," she joked, pointing at her nearby companion, Shareefa. "We both looked like Kojak at the time, very much bald, but I made fun out of it. I never let anything get to me," she said with a giggle.
Denise Le Roux from South Africa, 47 was familiar and more alert of her condition due to her profession; Denise is a Radiographer who only recently joined the Ladies of Courage. "I've been undergoing mammography screening since I turned 40. On October 1, 2007, while showering I felt an uneven feeling on my breasts and immediately visited an emergency ward and then a doctor," she said.
After the tests, it was obvious that she had malignant breast cancer. After a biopsy she was diagnosed with Lobular Carcinoma, the most aggressive type of breast cancer most often present in both breasts.
Denise decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy to minimise the risk of the cancer spreading.
Even though Denise's condition was more advanced than the other two ladies, she had no complaints regarding her chemotherapy treatment and surgery. "I refused to be sedated while undergoing surgery and was perfectly normal during chemotherapy, I hardly felt any symptoms," said the positive radiographer, who continued to work throughout her battle with breast cancer.
"I had always suspected that I may develop breast cancer since I have all the risk factors (being over-weight, having no children and never breast feeding). If you don't simply accept things as they are, your life turns miserable," she said.
Dr Patricia Snozyk, Senior Consultant and Family Physician facilitates the group Ladies With Courage with a plan on what to discuss and how to continue offering a hand to other breast cancer victims across the UAE.
"I've seen each one of these ladies blossom as individuals. It was a tough cultural challenge for them at first but now they are committed, happy and comfortable to share their journeys with similar women and offer as much support as possible," said the doctor, who advices women to undergo breast self examinations from the age of 20 and clinical breast examination from the age of 35.