'I bought a wig and wore it under my hijab': Breast cancer survivor sends message of hope

Dr Radwa Helal battled the disease while living alone with her three daughters

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October  13, 2020.  Breast cancer survivor Dr. Radwa Helal and husband, Dr. Khaled Omar. 
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Haneen Dajani

A breast cancer survivor from Abu Dhabi said the traumatic experience taught her to see life in a different light.

After battling the disease while living alone with her three daughters, Dr Radwa Helal said she is a different person.

She also overcame bouts of severe depression but her message to anyone diagnosed is one of hope.

When Dr Helal discovered a lump in her breast two years ago, she dismissed the idea of it being cancer.

“You expect it to happen to anyone but you,” said the 41-year-old paediatrician from Egypt.

I bought a wig and had it on the whole time, even under my hijab

When she voiced her concerns to her husband, a gynaecologist in Abu Dhabi, they hoped it was nothing serious.

One week later she woke up with a bigger mass in her underarm, so she knew she had to get tested. The results confirmed the worst.

“I used to work in Qatar and lived alone with my three daughters." Her husband, Khaled Omar, worked in Abu Dhabi and could not visit easily.

“My youngest [Sarah] was two-years-old, so it was very difficult," she said. Her other two were Mariam, who was 10 at the time, and Salma, 6.

“In the beginning, I was very practical and all my focus was on the treatment, which was not good because I did not give myself a chance to grieve and absorb the news.

“Now I tell people that sad feelings should be expressed at the time, because whatever gets bottled inside will eventually come out much worse."

Dr Helal was diagnosed in January 2018, and started chemotherapy in February. She underwent surgery in July and radiotherapy after.

Then she moved to Abu Dhabi to reunite with her husband in September of that year.

“I could not find a job in Abu Dhabi for around a year and I kept thinking ‘what’s next in my life?’

“The world started to narrow down in my eyes."

She said she could not function like before and she needed to “take a break and rest” frequently. It was a very difficult time.

Yet she said she had no regrets, because moving to Abu Dhabi was the right decision. “It was hard, but right.”

“I did not have the energy to stay alone with my children anymore. I wanted to be with my husband and they wanted to be with their father.”

But Dr Helal reached a turning point after six months.

“The support of family and friends helped me recover, especially the men in my life – my husband, my brother and father.”

She also started reading about the experiences of long-term survivors. "It helped a lot to see how life would be 10 years from now."

Dr Helal said breast cancer has also made her more considerate of other people.

“I don’t blame anyone for anything now, not even myself.

“I hope my words will be of benefit to others to understand that life goes on [with or without cancer]. It will not stop.”

During her treatment, Dr Helal managed to find practical ways to go on with her life without getting affected by the visible changes chemotherapy was causing.

“The toughest stage was losing my hair. I bought a wig and had it on the whole time, even under my hijab. I slept with it and only took it off when I showered.

“This may sound like a small thing, but it comforted me a lot, I was very happy with it and I changed its colour three times.

“I discovered there is a sophisticated industry for wigs that I knew nothing about it.”

She also became an expert in applying eyelashes and makeup to colour her eyebrows.

“When things got really tough, my happiest place to be was Sephora [the make-up store], where I bought all those products to feel better.

“I did not know much about make up before and now I am an expert. Many people could not tell that I had cancer because I filled the missing hair very well."