World Cancer Day: three women on their brave battle with the disease

Ulfat, Jennifer and Samiha all received the shock diagnosis within the past three years. Here, they tell Shireena Al Nowais of their journey to overcoming it

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 2, 2021.  Cancer survivor Samiha Ahmed Mohammed with grandchildren Tasneem Ahmed Said Ali Soliman-11 and Marwan, 8.
Victor Besa/The National.
Section:  NA
Reporter :  Shireena Al Nowai

On February 4 each year, campaigners, survivors and families who lost loved ones to cancer mark World Cancer Day.

Cancer kills about 10 million people worldwide each year

and each of us will have lost friends, family or colleagues. We may also know many more who have undergone treatment.

But at least one third of common cancers are preventable, and early detection and treatment mean patients can often be saved.

Three women who call the UAE home have been reflecting on their own fight against the disease, and their recovery.

'Start taking care of yourself and your body'

Ulfat Anjum, 44, was told she had breast cancer two years ago.

The Indian dentist, a mother of two sons, had no family history of cancer, did not smoke, never drank alcohol and went for an annual mammogram. Yet she was diagnosed with Stage-2 breast cancer just three months after her latest scan in 2019.

Once her diagnosis was confirmed, she underwent a full mastectomy in the same year.

She insisted on working at her dental practice in Dubai while she received chemotherapy.

"When you are first diagnosed you think it is the end of the world," Ms Anjum said.

“You may be told that you will die tomorrow, the next month or next year.

“Dying is all you hear and think about, but like any other disease, it comes and goes if treated in the right time.”

"We have blood pressure issues. We have diabetic issues. There are so many issues that you can die from. This cancer is a chance for you to live. Once you come to know you have it, start taking care of yourself and your body," she said.

“I want to live. I am happy with my life and, looking at my sons, I want to live and I am happy that God gave me the chance to live.”

Two years after her cancer diagnosis, life has returned to normal and she looks forward to reconstructive surgery.

Ms Anjum said it is vital that women should have regular medical examinations.

“Every girl from the age of 25 must have a full physical check-up every year," she said.

"We can not just sit at home saying that your mother or sister don’t have it, so you wont get it. You never know who will get it."

Health authorities recommend a mammogram every two years after the age of 40.

'I'm sporty, I run – I was only 34'

Jennifer Gonzalez Diaz received a breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, at the age of 34. Like Ms Anjum, she had no family history of cancer.

She was told she had the disease a few months after she gave birth to her now three-year-old son, Luca.

"As I was breastfeeding, I felt something hard in my right breast," said Ms Gonzalez Diaz, who is from Spain and works at a telecommunications company in the UAE.

She went for her check and was told it was probably an inflammation owing to breastfeeding. But the lump did not subside, even when she stopped breastfeeding.

After another check she was told she had breast cancer. Luca was just six months old.

"It was a shock. I am a person who is very sporty. I used to run, I do Pilates and I was only 34," she said.

Breast cancer survivor, Jennifer Gonzalez. Courtesy Jennifer Gonzalez

Ms Gonzalez Diaz had both breasts removed in 2018, and marked her 35th birthday with her second chemotherapy session.

She is now recovering and has thrown herself into healing.

"At first, a lot of things are going on. You feel like you are a burden to everyone and your family," she says.

“You ask a lot of questions, then at one point you have to stop asking the why, how and when.”

Jennifer turned to reiki and emotional freedom techniques – an alternative treatment for physical pain and emotional distress.

"The support of family and friends and the EFT has been everything," she says.

"At first it is a struggle to even speak about it because you feel a tonne of emotions. It is important to ask for help. That is something I had to learn to say, 'yes, I need your help, yes, I do need you'.

"After you accept help you need to speak about it without crumbling and thinking you have no future, and without any guilt.

"It is a roller coaster; you still face some of the fears when you go to the hospital and for your PET scan. We call it scanxiety."

To anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer, she says: "Having cancer is not a death sentence. It really is not. This does not mean you are condemned to death. You can and you will strive.

“It is also important to think that it can happen to you. Not in a fearful depressing way but to be mindful of your bodies, trust your instincts and keep having tests."

No insurance for cancer treatment

Samiha Ahmed was diagnosed with stage one lung cancer, one of the disease's deadliest forms, last year. The Egyptian, 69, who has four children and seven grandchildren, never smoked a cigarette or shisha in her life.

For 25 years she worked as a nurse at a government hospital in Abu Dhabi.

A cancerous tumourfound only when she underwent medical tests for her residency visa.

Ms Ahmed's treatment was rejected several times by her insurance company, in part because she was between visas.

Abu Dhabi's government stepped in and covered her medical bills, in accordance with a long-standing pledge to ensure no person goes untreated.

Doctors at Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City removed several tumours from her right lung.

Because this woman presented early she only required surgery to what is almost always a fatal cancer. Lung cancer is considered one of the most aggressive cancers.
"She required no chemotherapy or radiotherapy," said Dr Edward Black, consultant thoracic surgeon at the hospital. "Our message is: don't come late. Please get checked and see a doctor as early as possible because it makes the difference in quality of life and could mean finding a cure. People are scared of lung cancer and think it means death but it doesn't have to if you come early. It could also just be just a surgery and mean no radiation or chemotherapy," he said.
Ms Ahmed is currently in recovery and said she feels blessed. 

“But I tell anyone who feels any sort of pain, or anything at all, to go for a medical check-up,” she says.

“When I found out, I couldn’t believe it, but God gave me like he will give you, patience and strength.”

Covid impact on cancer care

The global Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted medical treatment for millions, especially cancer patients. Appointments have been pushed back and surgery delayed, while the situation in hospitals has made more people nervous about presenting with symptoms or asking for precautionary checks.

"Covid will not wait for cancer. Cancer waits for no one," said Dr Humaid Al Shamsi, president of the Emirates Oncology Society.

He and his colleagues have in the past year seen a decline in screening numbers.

"We are seeing more patients with advanced cancer because of Covid," he says.

“Patients delay their hospital visits and don’t come to their screening appointments which is a problem. This is a global issue that has to be addressed.”