Dubai: On the occasion of World Lung Cancer Day on August 1, a non-smoking expat woman in Dubai, who is undergoing treatment for stage four of the deadly disease, has highlighted the importance of not ignoring symptoms including persistent back pain and of following doctors’ advice, regardless of preconceived notions.
The 37-year-old Filipina expat, who prefers to be addressed by her nickname "Rhiza", told Gulf News that her ordeal began in 2020 when she experienced pain on the right side of her spine and ribs.
“I kept going to different doctors, but many were thinking it was just anxiety because it was the COVID-19 pandemic,” recollected the mum-of-two.
However, Rhiza’s pain persisted, making her feel uncomfortable and unable to sleep properly. Despite being able to work, she knew something was wrong with her body. Numerous tests and visits to different doctors, including an orthopedist and a chiropractor, did not yield any definitive results, leaving her frustrated.
Rhiza also visited a pulmonologist who noticed a nodule and suggested a biopsy. “However, I hesitated because I believed the pain was not connected to my lungs.”
Despite the doctor’s insistence, she said, she rejected the biopsy due to fear of emotional and physical exhaustion.
Finally, when the pain became severe last year, she consulted a neurosurgeon at Aster Hospital in Al Qusais, who suggested an MRI.
“The MRI revealed there was something wrong, probably a tumour or TB (tuberculosis) and the doctor said a biopsy was a must.”
Rhiza eventually consented to the procedure, which revealed the devastating news: she had stage four lung cancer that had metastasised and spread to her bones.
“I was in the hospital for nine days. The biopsy result was released on May 31, 2022. When my doctor informed me that it was lung cancer, I felt a mix of sadness and shock.”
Being a non-smoker, she had never expected to get lung cancer, said Rhiza, who has been living in Dubai since 2015. “Later, doctors told me it affects nonsmokers also, especially Asian women.”
Studies have shown that certain genetic and environmental factors may play a role in increasing the risk of lung cancer in Asian women.
Rhiza’s positive outlook and strong faith have been crucial in her journey. “I placed my trust in God and focused on fighting the disease by undergoing the treatment.”
I was not able to walk or even go to the washroom alone. I used to be in a wheelchair while going for my chemotherapy sessions. From that phase, I have come a long way, thanks to the effective treatment. I still have some pain, but it has come down and I can walk and cook.
She credits the unwavering support from her family and her company for helping her navigate this difficult time.
“My husband and daughters are my pillars of support. My company has been extraordinarily supportive as they continued to keep me on their visa and provided me health insurance though I stopped working last year.”
After undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy, Rhiza saw progress in her health, allowing her to regain some independence and mobility.
“I was not able to walk or even go to the washroom alone. I used to be in a wheelchair while going for my chemotherapy sessions. From that phase, I have come a long way, thanks to the effective treatment. I still have some pain, but it has come down and I can walk and cook.”
She thanked the doctors at Aster Hospital Al Qusais for diagnosing her disease and offering effective treatment that has given her a lot of relief.
While the exact cause of her cancer remains unknown, Rhiza emphasises the need to prioritise health and not ignore even minor symptoms.
Through her journey, Rhiza hopes to inspire others to have faith, trust their medical professionals, and not delay seeking help if they experience any health concerns. “Cancer can affect anyone. Early detection and timely treatment are crucial. It is important to maintain a positive outlook and stay hopeful.”
Dr. Pranay Taori, medical oncology specialist at Aster Hospital, Al Qusais, who treated Rhiza, highlighted the importance of dispelling the misconception among many that lung cancer only affects smokers.
“Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer as the carcinogens present in tobacco smoke can damage the cells lining the lungs, leading to the development of cancer. However, it is important to note that lung cancer can also occur in non-smokers. Estimates vary, but it is believed that about 10-20 per cent of lung cancer cases occur in individuals who have never smoked or have minimal exposure to tobacco smoke. Environmental and occupational exposures, genetic factors, and other unknown causes contribute to lung cancer development in non-smokers.”
Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer as the carcinogens present in tobacco smoke can damage the cells lining the lungs, leading to the development of cancer. However, it is important to note that lung cancer can also occur in non-smokers
He said the most common cause of lung cancer in non-smokers is exposure to environmental factors such as secondhand smoke, radon gas, air pollution, occupational exposures (e.g., asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust), and genetic predisposition.
He said the early warning signs of lung cancer that people should not ignore include persistent cough, chest pain, back pain, shortness of breath, hoarseness, coughing up blood, fatigue, weight loss, and recurrent respiratory infections.
“It’s important to note that these symptoms can be caused by various conditions other than lung cancer. However, if you experience any of these warning signs, especially if they persist or worsen over time, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional for evaluation and diagnosis. Early detection and treatment of lung cancer can significantly improve outcomes.”
Prevention and treatment
Lung cancer remains a significant global health concern. Regular screenings for those at high risk, avoiding tobacco use, and leading a healthy lifestyle are essential steps in preventing and managing the disease.
“In early-stage lung cancer, surgery is the treatment of choice. However, advancements in chemotherapy, targeted therapies for specific genes, and immunotherapy have transformed the approach to advanced lung cancer. Next-generation sequencing on lung cancer biopsy samples allows for personalised and targeted therapies. Over the last few decades, there have been revolutionary developments in lung cancer diagnosis and treatment,” added Dr Taori.