Teenage cancer sufferer takes message of survival to UAE

Zeena Beale is now in remission, after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at 18. Now, she hopes to spread awareness among youth where she grew up.
Zeena Beale’s hair has grown back and she is in remission after having cancer diagnosed. She now speaks about the risks of cancer. Lee Hoagland / The National
Zeena Beale’s hair has grown back and she is in remission after having cancer diagnosed. She now speaks about the risks of cancer. Lee Hoagland / The National

ABU DHABI // Zeena Beale knew something was wrong.

It was her second term at university when she began to feel tired and cold all the time. She was losing weight. And then there were the night sweats.

Looking back, Zeena realises she didn’t take her symptoms seriously enough. A photo of her from that time shows how pale she had become shortly before doctors diagnosed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 2B.

She was just 18 years old.

“I attributed all of these things to stress,” she says.

The impetus came when her sister Dana, a doctor, came to see her London concert for students at Cambridge University, where Zeena studied music.

“When she saw me walking out on stage during that concert, she was horrified,” says Zeena, now 20, who was born to a British-Iraqi family and grew up in Abu Dhabi and the UK.

When she saw her sister she burst into tears. “I just knew there was something wrong,” Zeena says.

Dana felt the area around Zeena’s neck and found a lump larger than two centimetres – an enlarged lymph node above her left collarbone. Dana initially said nothing, but was at Zeena’s door at 9am the next morning to take her to hospital.

“Why?” Zeena remembers asking.

“Because I think you have leukaemia or lymphoma,” her sister replied, then began to cry.

Zeena has come back to Abu Dhabi this month, four rounds of chemotherapy and two birthdays after the diagnosis. Her hair has grown back and the colour returned to her face after 10 months in remission.

She has given talks in the UK and Abu Dhabi. She plans to reach out to schools this month, having visited her old school, the British School Al Khubairat, during her first visit back to the UAE in February.

Zeena’s father, Tony, remembers the diagnosis as one of the worst things that could happen to a typical expatriate family, spread across the world. He was in Abu Dhabi and Zeena’s mother was in Morocco at the time. He started a blog to keep family and friends updated on her condition. “You have this problem where, out of the blue, your youngest daughter develops this life-threatening illness. It’s sort of your worst nightmare,” says Mr Beale, 61, an English teacher who has been in the UAE for 34 years.

Zeena uses the talks as a platform for messages she wants to get across – know the warning signs of cancer; listen to your body; keep healthy; donate blood; go on a bone-marrow register if you are able to.

They are in part fuelled by friends she has met during the course of her treatments and recovery dealing with diseases such as sarcoma, a cancer, and aplastic anaemia, a blood disorder. A source of inspiration for her is the 19-year-old British cancer patient Stephen Sutton, who died last Wednesday morning after raising more than £3 million [Dh18.5m] for the UK charity, the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Zeena’s talk at the British School Al Khubairat was “honest and very open”, says her former form tutor, Sascha Dallas. She described her experiences and discussed the symptoms while emphasising that getting cancer at a young age is very rare, while maintaining an upbeat tone and sense of humour.

“The audience of 250 teenagers listened in silence throughout her emotional account of the past year,” Ms Dallas says. “You could hear a pin drop.”

Zeena is also an ambassador for the Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity that aims to improve the quality of life and chances of survival for young people between 13 and 24 who have cancer diagnosed. The organisation made a huge difference in her treatment, she says.

In Hertfordshire, where she received the diagnosis, she was surrounded by patients at least 30 years her senior, an experience she found alienating. But when she started treatment at the University College Hospital in central London, in a ward run by the Teenage Cancer Trust, that changed.

“It was lovely. It just made everything easier to be surrounded by people your own age,” she says.

The organisation provided a 24-hour kitchen stocked with crisps and Pot Noodles, and arranged activities and workshops, a contrast to the intravenous lines and chemo bags she was becoming acquainted with. A hairdresser with the charity worked with her and comforted her when she began to lose her hair.

Zeena is recovering from limited mobility related to side effects from steroids, but is almost back to normal. She plans to return to university in October. She continues to talk about the disease and has made video blogs about her experiences.

Leaving university seemed “really unfair”, she says – a cruel age, still so young but old enough to understand the morality of it and what death means.

“It’s made me think to not worry so much about the future,” says Zeena.

lcarroll@thenational.ae

Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM

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