Can you imagine yourself going through cancer? The mere thought of it sends shivers down many people’s spine. Cancer, as a global disease, is frequently associated with death, mortality, pain and grief. For the following survivors, cancer is reality. However, from their struggle comes determination, hope and positivity. Read on to discover their stories.
Cancer Awareness as a Light of Hope
Social stigma and shame have constantly been tied heavily with cancer, particularly in Qatar. During an award event in celebration of International Cancer Day hosted by Qatar Cancer Society in late December 2015, Qatari survivor Mr. Mubarak Bin Jaham Al Kuwari, who recovered from cancer 12 years ago, spoke publicly of his experience, stating that regular check-ups were vital in the early detection of diseases such as cancer. Al Kuwari praised the efforts of Qatar Cancer Society in spreading awareness, and encouraged the widespread education of the disease to the community. He also emphasized the importance of hope as being key in overcoming it.
“I thank God that I felt pain”
In January 2011, on a regular afternoon, Heni Handayani suddenly felt a shot of pain in her chest. The pain travelled down to her left arm, and was accompanied by feverish sensations. Concerned, the mother of three quickly took herself to the hospital where she went through an ultrasound and MRI scan. For most of her life, Handayani had gone for regular mammography check-ups and her results showed no cause for concern. This time, however, she received the shock of her life.
Buried right above her left breast, where it could be neither felt nor detected by simple mammography, was a small cancerous tumor. “I cried every day for two months after I knew. I cried for almost three years,” admitted Handayani, as she thought of the irreversible nature of cancer. At 48 years of age, she was diagnosed with stage I (A) breast cancer.
Knowing the cancer could easily spread to other parts of her body, Handayani opted for a full mastectomy (removal of the breast). She didn’t require any chemotherapy as the tumor had been caught early. “I thank God that I felt pain. Many women often do not feel anything at all and later on they find that they’re at stage III or IV”.
The journey towards recovery has been a period of adjustments. For the first year, Handayani avoided eating meat but has now found a balance which allows her a varied diet. For the housewife, food is an integral part of family bonding and quality time. “I don’t want to miss out on anything in life anymore.”
A Near Death Experience to Be Thankful For
In summer 2012, Anas Karaki, who was then a first year international student in Texas A&M University in Qatar, discovered a lump on his neck. Curious, he went to the hospital and, after a biopsy, was informed that he has Hodgkin Lymphoma, a type of cancer which affects the lymph nodes. His initial reaction was to laugh out loud.
“I have accepted it, my grandfather passed away when he received chemotherapy for cancer,” explained Karaki.
Diagnosed with stage II cancer, Karaki underwent chemotherapy and endured a year of strong medication before the tumor finally decreased significantly. However, a few months later, he discovered another one growing on his shoulder and was told he would need a bone marrow transplant.
Due to the many treatments he’d received, Karaki had grown tolerant to morphine, and opted to go through his surgery without anesthetic. On the operating table, he faced a near-death experience — his lungs stopped functioning. Aware of the situation, Karaki found himself helpless whilst surgeons around him scrambled to restart his lungs.
“It’s a strange feeling, your body is there, and your mind is somewhere else. I had a moment where all my memories came back to me all the way to my childhood and I thought, am I going to die?”
Thankfully, the procedure was completed successfully, and Karaki, now 21, has resumed his studies and will be graduating in May 2016. During his recovery, he took to writing, and is now working on a novel about his journey. “I really appreciate what happened to me. I came to love books through this experience and I try to be happy. I would say I was a naïve child before this and now I feel more grown up.”
“Do Not Be Afraid of Your Body”
Sandee Thompson, 51, was stunned when she discovered a tumor in her breast five years ago. The Canadian was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer through a regular mammogram. Immediately, she went through a lumpectomy and 16 rounds of radiation, along with taking several other medications.
Unfortunately, she had a relapse. “I felt frustrated. I knew what to expect but I just wanted it dealt with,” said Thompson. She opted for bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction a second time. It was not an easy journey — she was faced with several complications and infections. Luckily, everything has been resolved and Thompson is hoping to get her final reconstruction procedure very soon.
Having fought cancer twice in her life, Thompson now desires to live a fuller life. “The biggest change is that I now live 100% in the moment and I avoid stressful situations.” She has started a dragon boat group for cancer survivors and supporters. Presently, she lives an active and full life.
As a cancer survivor, Thompson emphasizes the importance for women to know their body and go for regular check-ups. “Do not be afraid of your body, and pay attention to differences. Women in Qatar are often diagnosed too late, or at stage III or IV, because they do not go for regular checks or ignore the signs. Fear can control us and it shouldn’t.”
“I had no symptoms and suddenly I’m a stage III cancer patient”
Fiona Redfern-Pattison was living her life normally as the Head of Music Department at the Gulf English School in Doha. However, in 2014, she started experiencing hot flushes. Concerned by the condition, she visited the hospital where she underwent an ultrasound of her chest. There, the doctor detected a tumor in her right breast — a tumor large enough to be considered stage III cancer.
“I had no symptoms before at all and suddenly there it is, coming so silently,” Redfern-Pattison admitted. The news came as a shock to her and her entire family. Within a week, Redfern-Pattison had mammogram and biopsy and was tested positive for cancer. It was a sad news to Redfern-Pattison as her mother had recently died from ovarian cancer. “She was the first person in our family to have cancer.”
Redfern-Pattison underwent a series of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. She is currently on tamoxifen (an anti-estrogen medication) to prevent the growth of the cancer.
Since surviving cancer, Redfern-Pattison has changed her lifestyle. She admitted that she is now much more aware of what she eats and the beauty products she uses, and highlighted the importance of a stress free life. “I’m less stressed…I’m just chilled now, about everything, and I juice everyday.”
A Mental Challenge
For Sameer Ahmed, cancer is another obstacle to overcome. Or climb over.
At the age of 24, Ahmed was diagnosed with an advanced stage of Hodgkin Lymphoma, a type of cancer which generally affects the lymph nodes.
“I had it in my chest, neck and lungs. My lungs are non-lymphatic organs so immediately it was stage IV-B, which was the most advanced stage,” said Ahmed. The Canadian never thought the symptoms he experienced would turn into cancer. Starting from an unexplainable loss of appetite and weight, Ahmed then began to experience recurring fever.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating and I didn’t know why. That was scary. The last thing that showed up, I had a lump coming on my neck. Initially it was a small one, but then over the period of two weeks, my lump has grown to the size of a golf ball!”
Ahmed went through chemotherapy immediately after biopsy. Unfortunately, at the age of 25, he had a relapse and had to undergo stem cell transplant, a process which took a year to recover from.
Chemotherapy was extremely challenging to cope with physically, however Ahmed found the mental effects of going through the treatment a much heavier burden.
“The treatment is probably tougher than the actual cancer,” said Ahmed, “Six months is a long time to put a break in your life. The fact that I was in university and I had plans for the future, and I have to come to terms with the idea that maybe had to cancel some of those plans.”
Now at 31, Ahmed has been cancer free for five years. He currently runs his own trading and contracting company in Doha and is passionate about spreading cancer awareness. In December 2015, Ahmed went to west Argentina to scale Mount Aconcagua, the second highest mountain peak outside of the Himalayas. What started out as a personal goal has now tuned into a movement to inspire. Ahmed has brought along his cancer awareness campaign, Climb Over Cancer, to the top of Mount Aconcagua.
“I thought why not share it with others, maybe it can inspire others to do something similar. I just want to show other cancer patients that maybe you can get out of bed and do something like this too, that your life is not over.”