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Life after breast cancer

Sajida Ilyas (name changed) did not have a history of cancer in her family. None of her siblings or parents had this disease. Sajida had done everything right. As a 48 year old mother of three, she had breastfed all her three children. She never used Oral Contraceptive Pills. She had never touched a cigarette. She had a simple, content, healthy life. Eat, pray and love had been her mantra. She was not expected to develop breast cancer. But she did.

One fine day, out of the blues, in the shower, she discovered a lump she describes as big as “a small mango’s seed”. Since that fateful day, one year ago, life has not been the same for Sajida. After being diagnosed with Stage 3 of breast cancer, she has undergone a lot. Surgery to remove one of her breasts, chemotherapy, radiation therapy. The pain, the anguish, the hair loss, the social stigma. And the family support, the bonding, the closer relation with God, the strengthening of faith. She may have lost a few battles, but has won many, and flaunts her scars of battle with pride….the pride of a fighter. Here are a few of her experiences, in her own words….the words of a woman who feels fortunate each day to be alive and have another day with her family.

“I have always been known as someone with a contagious laughter and a good sense of humour. I am a talkative, chatty, social person. But all that changed when I discovered I had cancer. The “C” word, the unthinkable had happened to me! I would sit for hours in the same position, staring at one object like a zombie, with my mind and soul literally feeling empty. For the first time in my life, I was at a loss for words. I had nothing to say…..neither to anyone else, nor to myself. My laughter had been sucked out of me.

But my faith never dwindled. I knew one thing in my heart with conviction that I would not die before the time God had destined for me. That is why my fear was of suffering from the disease, but not of death. After this illness, I started having more one on one sessions with my Creator. I would weep and cry and had so many questions. But eventually, it was through prayer and faith only that I got the strength to fight back. I became surer and surer that Allah loves me and will heal me, and has some benefit hidden even in my suffering.

My other biggest strength has been my family. My sister who is a doctor flew in from Canada. My siblings stood by me like a rock. My husband was by my side. But more than anyone else, my children have been my friends, confidantes and biggest support. Our family has grown closer. My daughter served me the most, but even my two sons left no stone unturned. Acceptance of my illness was not easy for them too. There were days when we all collectively sat down and cried together and at the end of each such session, our resolve to fight this together became stronger.

Initially, it was a tough decision for me whether I should go for a mastectomy (breast removal) or simply have a lumpectomy (remove the lump). Relatives and friends were ever so interested in this decision. I was losing a part of my body but they seemed more curious about it. But I knew that I had something worth living for in my family and in myself. At Stage 3, I did not want to take chances and so I went for the complete removal of one of my breasts. Women would come to me before the surgery and say ‘you will lose all self-esteem. Your husband will no longer be attracted to you. You will feel ugly’. But I had confidence in myself. I wanted to be alive. If that meant facing the potential risk of my husband losing interest in me, so be it. It was not worth risking my life. Luckily, nothing of the sort happened to me, although I did feel a distance build up between me and my husband for a while. But my outlook had changed. Arguing and fighting with my spouse over his reaction meant losing precious energy – energy I needed to live on. So I concentrated more on my inner strength and less on people. I guess sometimes men don’t know how to react in trying situations. They mean well but cannot express it.

The reactions of people have been varied. Mostly very supportive but often irritating and demoralizing, especially when people over-sympathize and patronize. A woman had the guts to tell me that I must’ve done something wrong that angered God that I got this illness! Recently, a family proposing for my daughter suddenly disappeared after I told them that I had breast cancer. Some of my closest people avoided me, thinking this is contagious.

But it is not just people. It is also difficult to face yourself in the mirror. When I lost my hair as a reaction to chemotherapy, I dreaded looking in the mirror. But my children encouraged me and I never stopped going out and did not fear being spotted like that. There is more to me than my hair.

The most painful part was the chemotherapy sessions and the radiation therapy, and after that the Herceptin treatment. Your inside is on fire. You cannot keep food down but have to eat to live on and have enough strength for the next treatment. The radiation burnt my skin and it became infected with pus. At that time it seemed this will never end. But it eventually did.

Today, I feel blessed to have been given a second lease at life. I still feel weak. Every day is a struggle. Even the mundane chores are a formidable task at times. But then I look at my beautiful family and I know that this is worth fighting for. This disease may have wounded my body, but cannot destroy my soul. I feel stronger than ever.”

 Originally published in Dawn (2011)