'It was a miracle': how a Saudi entrepreneur beat Leukaemia to start her own taco business

After overcoming cancer, TacoMelon founder Umniah left her corporate life behind to pursue her passion for food

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Umniah Alzahery, a Saudi national, was at the peak of her corporate career when she was diagnosed with Leukaemia – blood cancer that normally begins in the bone marrow.

Then head of HR at a top Saudi investment firm, she feared her life as a high-powered businesswoman was over.

"I'll never forget the night that changed everything," she told The National.

“I was at dinner with my in-laws and I began to feel tired and thought it was my allergies, but when I went to get checked at a hospital they gave me the news,” she said.

"I was healthy, at the peak of my corporate career and had just got married. This came out of nowhere."

When she was first admitted to the Princess Noura Oncology Centre at King Abdul Aziz Medical City in Jeddah, the doctors said the cancer was so prevalent in her bloodstream she might only have a few weeks left to live.

Saudi cancer survivor, Umniah Alzahery. Photo: Umniah Alzahery

Her treatment at the hospital was highly effective, she said.

“It was a miracle how fast and aggressive the doctors killed the disease, because when I went to the US I was already in the first remission.”

Umniah was transferred to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, for further treatment just as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to spread like wildfire across the country.

Not only was she in danger from her cancer, but she was also now immunocompromised and at a heightened risk of Covid-19.

While in the US, Umniah waited almost six months for a suitable bone marrow donor due to a lack of people registered.

Eventually, after an unsuccessful transplant, Umniah still overcame Leukaemia.

Back to health and back in Jeddah, she dreamed of returning to the business world she had been forced to leave behind.

Then inspiration came from her friends.

Saudi cancer survivor, Umniah Alzahery. Photo: Umniah Alzahery

Umniah recalled hosting “Taco Tuesdays” for her friends, who would always encourage her to open her own restaurant.

I've always enjoyed having guests over and love cooking and sharing the joy with others," she said.

Although she had no professional training as a chef, Umniah could see an opportunity and her food truck business – Tacomelon Avenue – was born, making its debut at Jeddah’s Formula 1 race in 2021, before heading on to the massive XP music event in the capital, Riyadh.

Saudi cancer survivor, Umniah Alzahery. Photo: Umniah Alzahery

The food truck was a hit with locals and tourists alike and rave reviews had people queuing up for hours to get a taste of Umniah’s tacos.

Despite her achievements, Umniah’s battle with Leukaemia – coupled with being separated from her family and friends by the pandemic – took its toll.

She said the experience of overcoming the disease changed her outlook on life.

"From losing my hair to people so close to me, the diagnosis took a toll on my entire being. I found myself in a place where I desperately wanted to talk to survivors, anyone who had experienced this and could give me hope. I found none. I stopped watching movies because everyone who died was a victim of cancer," she said.

"I realised people don't know how to deal with cancer patients. They either don't know what to say, they get uneasy and find it easier to stay away than approach someone dealing with a life-threatening disease," she said.

"Leukaemia put everything into perspective for me, my relationship with the world, close friends, family, material things, and of course God. I remember looking at my bank account and thinking what good is this money when I can't even get up and go to the bathroom by myself … it was a lot to take in, live with and think about."

She said her faith in God was what helped the most: “That's where I found my peace, solace, and hope.”

When she had finally beaten the disease, Uminah was determined to change the narrative around cancer survivors and give people a chance to hear her story.

She said she believed it was important for people in Saudi Arabia to “know that one can fight and overcome” a deadly disease like Leukaemia.

Families, she said, have a big role to play in helping people overcome serious illness.

"It is important for family and friends to engage with those suffering in a sensitive way and not feel uncomfortable with it," she said, adding that more awareness needs to be created in society.

Umniah is planning a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of becoming a registered bone marrow donor.

“An anonymous bone marrow donor was integral to my treatment and helped save my life and gave me the chance to be where I am today,” she said.

“We never knew the importance of registering as donors until we were directly affected. Being added to a global database is done via a cheek swab, so it's very easy and just a few seconds could save the life of a stranger.”

For Umniah, her newfound activism and business go hand in hand.

“My plans for the future are to keep fighting and to make more tacos,” she said.

Updated: January 24, 2022, 3:45 AM
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