Dubai: Irina Sharma, an Indian expat in Dubai, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Her mother Lalita Sharma received a similar report two years later; and her father G.K. Sharma, a former diplomat, died of brain cancer in 2002.
“Well, my partner Hani Soubra too was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It’s almost as if cancer is contagious, isn’t it?” she laughs.
A former radio broadcaster, PR professional and health and wellness ‘cultivator’, Irina isn’t joking though. When it comes to cancer, few can talk with as much conviction as she can.
“Yes, loud and proud,” says the 54 year old, taking us through her life journey from being a cancer caregiver and campaigner to a cancer patient herself.
And as her mum turns 83 tomorrow, Irina marked her birthday by launching a campaign called iCAN, preferring to focus on the first three letters of “CANCER” and celebrating survival as it were.
Nurturing a love for nature
Irina’s story begins when she was barely six years old. “Dad was posted in Canada and as a family, we would meet a lot of people. I would invariably be drawn to conversations around health and the many takes on it,” she recalls.
Funnily enough, she nurtured her own ideas about health and found herself spending a lot of time in the lap of nature.
Having learnt this from her mother, who turns 83 today, Irina decided to mark her birthday by launching a campaign with her prescription.
“The campaign, called iCAN, aims to galvanise vast members of the community, in order to tap into their internal reservoirs of strength to combat adversity and live well, both as individuals and for others,” said Irina.
She said, “Language has a magical influence on the lives we lead, with an impact on our thoughts, emotions and/or actions. Whenever I would ask my nephew Shaan why he did something, he would shrug his shoulders and say ‘because I CAN”. When I was diagnosed with cancer, his voice echoed inside me, and my mind instantly focused on the first three letters of CANcer – CAN. My mum and dad also taught me the power human thoughts, sounds and intentions have, to strengthen and disempower oneself.”
“Words do have the power to heal, guide and motivate. Words used with intention can redirect us while we face our challenges,” she argues.
The campaign which has been launched on Instagram has many players, including Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor, pledging the ‘I CAN’ mantra in the hope of inspiring anyone facing any kind of challenge, not necessarily, cancer.
Dr Houriya Kazim, breast cancer surgeon who has treated Irina, says, “We have links between a positive mental state and good health. Being positive and happy combats stress, which then boosts your immune system. It also lowers blood pressure and sugar and gives an overall longer life. Irina is a naturally upbeat person. She was like this before her diagnosis where she takes the good with the bad. She has also developed a useful set of coping tools which came in handy when she was diagnosed with cancer. For example, her yoga practice and healthy eating habits. Since completing treatment too, she is showering other cancer patients with her endless joy and positivity.”
“Nature has a strong healing power about it, which I perhaps sensed even back then, whether I was walking around the park or climbing a tree. I just felt good being outdoors,” says Irina.
Born in Russia – “hence the name Irina” – she grew up in different countries depending on where father’s job took them, her vast exposure to the world helping her bloom into a fine young woman.
Dubai’s first female broadcaster
Poised, peppy and passionate about life, Irina, who moved to Dubai in 1994, became the city’s first female – and Indian - radio broadcaster, an assignment that brought her instant name and fame. “With that came a sense of responsibility and again, it was health and the environment that got my attention. At some point, I happened to connect with the Emirates Environmental Group. During their clean-up campaigns, there was much talk about plastics and their potential to cause cancer.”
Convinced about a possible link Irina read up a lot on the subject and in due course, launched a breast cancer awareness campaign with a well-known international brand, stressing upon the importance of early detection.
“Looking back now, I was perhaps ahead of my times, as we could not even use the word ‘breast’ in those days,” she says.
When dad, just 66, passed on
Nothing, however, could have prepared her for what followed. “Around 2002, dad, who was in New Delhi, was rushed to an Emergency because he suffered a stroke. By the time I landed there, a battery of tests had been administered and he was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer.”
She says, “It was a bolt out of the blue. Dad was just 66. I actually received the diagnosis report and the task of telling the family about it fell on me. It was not easy.”
But Irina and her family, who had long cherished her father’s well-lived life, managed the moment with maturity. “There was no freaking out, no room for fear even. That’s just who we are,” she says.
When my father was diagnosed with brain cancer, it was a bolt out of the blue. But the family managed the moment with maturity. There was no freaking out, no room for fear even. That's just who we are. "
As they made the most of the days left for her father, Irina says her biggest takeaway was the way he, despite his infirmity, loss of memory and paralysis on one side, still took a walk with her in the park and urged her to spread out her wings and fly higher.
She says she tended to him for the next two-and-a-half months, savouring each day as a new lease of life as the doctors had given him just two weeks to live. She recounts that there were many “movie moments” in between, including her having to sign a consent form for an emergency procedure on the dying man, but when he finally passed on, “no one teared up”.
“How can you feel sad and not see the strength?” she reasons.
Fond memories fill the void
As the family continued to cope by filling the void with fond memories, Irina received another jolt just a year down the line.
“I felt a lump in my right breast and despite my campaigning on early detection, never found the time to see a doctor myself. But Dr Houriya Kazim, whom I had spoken to about it, threatened to make my negligence public if I didn’t turn up at her clinic. So I went, got the tests done and was diagnosed with hyperplasia, an increased cell production that was a sign of abnormal changes.”
We have links between a positive mental state and good health. Being positive and happy combats stress, which then boosts your immune system. It also lowers blood pressure and sugar and gives an overall longer life. Irina is a naturally upbeat person. She was like this before her diagnosis where she takes the good with the bad. She has also developed a useful set of coping tools which came in handy when she was diagnosed with cancer. For example, her yoga practice and healthy eating habits. Since completing treatment too, she is showering other cancer patients with her endless joy and positivity.
‘I have cancer, by the way’
It was in 2016 that she was diagnosed with cancer in the left breast. “I still remember that day,” says Irina, who is also a dancer and an athlete. “I had just finished my 10km morning run and gotten into the car when Dr Huriya called me. Somehow, I knew what she was going to say. When she hung up, I told my partner who was also in the car that I had cancer - by the way.”
She says she never bothered to ask the doctors how advanced her cancer was. “It didn’t matter to me. I am not trying to be a power-puff girl but again, it’s just who I am.”
Irina, who underwent necessary treatment, including a double mastectomy, says she did not go in for chemotherapy as she was - and still is - on a natural medicine, immunity-boosting regime from the VIVAMAYR Medical Health Resort by Lake Wörthersee in Austria.
She claims it has held her in good stead. The family though was not done with cancer yet.
Two years later, her mum was also diagnosed with cancer in her right breast. “Since I had not told her about my diagnosis right away, she didn’t either. And when she eventually called me to go and look her up in Bahrain, she said she had merely followed my example and not told me about it earlier. She looked absolutely gorgeous standing there as she spoke and at 83 today, remains the power house of our family.”
Irina says she and her partner Hani Soubra, who has survived thyroid cancer, has done much research and study on cancer. A certified wellness cultivator today, she can talk at length about the disease. But she says she prefers not to see it as a battle, adding that she and Hani are preparing to launch a book on their experience with cancer. “It’s called Carcinoma Diaries and hopefully, it will benefit others.”