With this being Emirates Woman‘s 35th anniversary month, we’re all about celebrating the milestones.
And these brave women have more reason than most to celebrate landmark achievements – they are all breast cancer survivors. To mark Breast Cancer Awareness month, they reveal the number of years since their diagnosis and how they got the strength and courage to conquer the fight of their lives.
Gabriella Lima, 38, is a lawyer from Brazil. She was diagnosed 10 years ago.
Gabriella says: “I was 28 years old when I found a lump in my breast during a routine consultation with my gynaecologist. Tests, followed by a biopsy, confirmed it was breast cancer. I was floored, given my age and the fact that there was no history of breast cancer in my family. A wave of fear overcame me. Every time I had an appointment to do another exam, I would be in a complete panic. I was always afraid that the doctors would find more tumours; that my life would be at risk.
“At this point, I made a deal with myself: if I survived, I would be eternally grateful for my life and would not complain about my situation. Luckily, doctors caught it before it spread, so a mastectomy removed the tumour. I then had chemo and radiotherapy.
“I got through it thanks to the support of my family and friends, one good friend in particular who later became my husband. Six years after my diagnosis, we welcomed our daughter. Today, almost ten years after the diagnosis, I feel immensely grateful to be alive. The experience of fighting cancer has given me the strength to face any other problem life throws at me with the courage and certainty that the obstacle can be overtaken, and life will go on. Some of your greatest pain will become your greatest strength.”
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Ghadeer Kunna, 47, originally from the US, is a policy and strategy professional. She was 43 when she was first diagnosed.
Ghadeer says: “I first found benign tumours at the age of 29. At the time, I was living in California and was a complete health freak. I worked out five days a week and ate only healthy, organic foods. I also had no family history of breast cancer, so I had no reason to think it was anything serious. However, a decade on, the tumours started to mutate and, although not yet cancerous, doctors advised removing them. But by January 2013, the tumours were back and this time, I was diagnosed with aggressive stage 3 cancer which had spread from my breasts to my lymph node.
“The hardest part has been coping with the side effects of chemo because it can totally deplete you. I knew I had to stay strong to make it through, but also for my family and friends who love and care for me.
“My mother has been my rock throughout this and I’ve also had amazing support from friends and co-workers. I’m sure they’d all tell you I’m a very tough and determined woman, but there’s no doubt that their support made a huge difference; just knowing I’m not alone and I’m very much loved.
“My mantra for all areas of life is: ‘And still I rise, like the Phoenix from the ashes, burning and bright.’ It’s important not to give up. It’s okay to cry every now and then from pain and frustration; but then you have to stop, brush off the cobwebs and get back to the fight. You have to remember that you’re worth it, all the way, and then some. It doesn’t matter how much people love you and care for you, you need to do the work first for you alone. Whatever support you get, is just that: support. And people who haven’t been through this disease to fight for their life will never truly understand your fears and concerns.
Raquel Soeiro, 35, is a make-up artist from Portugal. She was 33 and pregnant when she was diagnosed.
Raquel says: “I was 12 weeks pregnant when I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer, in September 2014. A month on, in October 2014, I had surgery followed by chemo the following month. Knowing that my daughter was inside me gave me strength: she was like my inner rock. Because of her I knew I could get through anything.
“My daughter Isabel was born in March 2015 and two weeks later I was back in hospital finishing off my chemo treatment. Then, when Isabel was just three months old, I had radiotherapy.
“My husband is the most amazing person and his support since the very first minute we found out I had cancer was amazing. He filled me with positive energy and love. The hardest thing of all is to be away from friends and family back home, and I couldn’t have got through the darkest days without my friends here in Dubai.
“Finding out I had cancer while pregnant was scary and there was not much information out there, so I founded a group, Careca Power. It’s a group of Portuguese women who share strength and the experience of being bald during chemo. It’s an amazing experience and one that has got me through. I always say: ‘You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only option you have!’
“I am not cancer-free yet – I’ll be on cancer-fighting drugs for another ten years – but I know I’ll fight it.
“Having cancer has been the most beautiful and amazing time of my life. I’ve had the chance to meet wonderful people, true friends have revealed themselves and my family have become closer. I feel more alive than ever and for that I’m so grateful.”
Jaana Fanucci, 35, is a stay-at-home mum from Estonia. She was 34 when she was diagnosed.
Jaana says: “I first felt a lump six weeks into breastfeeding my daughter. I got it checked out the next day and the ultrasound showed it was a fibroadenoma – a benign growth common in breastfeeding women. When my daughter was nine months old, I returned for a check-up and within days I got the devastating news that I had stage 3 breast cancer. I was instantly thrust from my new-parent bubble into a world of medical procedures and scary terminology. I had chemotherapy, a bi-lateral mastectomy together with reconstructive surgery and radiation therapy. I have five more sessions of medication before I’m given the all-clear but tests show that the cancer has gone.
“The hardest part has been the constant uncertainty. A visit to the doctor has you hanging on words and phrases: ‘Did they say a good result or an excellent result?’ These simple terms can mean the difference between life and death.
“Cancer never leaves your thoughts and you are constantly reminded, by a slight pain, a bought of nausea, an ulcer in the mouth… It eats up your time. I hated that I had to spend time away from my darling daughter. But I knew that it was the surest way to see her walking down the aisle on her wedding day or receiving her graduation certificate.
“From the beginning, I adopted an attitude in which I broke the war against cancer down into small winnable battles. At times the simplest thing, like getting out of bed, was a win. Overall, I never believed that I would lose this fight. I drew inspiration from the most basic emotions – a simple smile from my daughter, a kind word from my husband or a caring thought from friends would be enough to recharge me and keep me going.
“You have to believe this disease can be beaten, and understand that you are not alone. Your family and friends are also going through this with you, so rely on them, draw strength from them and allow them to help.”
Cindy Dobratz, 39, a customer care director from the USA was diagnosed last November.
Cindy says: “I was visiting my family in Minnesota in the US last October and decided to squeeze in a quick check up with my regular doctor back home. She noticed a lump in my breast and insisted I get a mammogram immediately. The following month back in the UAE, tests revealed I had grade 1 cancer in my milk duct, but thankfully, it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes yet. However, there’s a lot of cancer on both sides of my family, including breast and ovarian.
“After discussions with my doctor, I decided to have genetic testing to determined whether I should opt for a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. The wait for those tests results was incredibly hard. I was filled with uncertainty and felt like my life was on hold. Questions came flooding into my head: ‘What will recovery be like? What will my physical limitations be? Will I still be able to exercise? Would I have my surgery before or after Christmas? Would I be able to go home for Christmas? Would I be able to ski on New Year’s as I had planned? I had a work trip planned to Amsterdam in January – would I be able to go on that? What about radiation? When will that start and for how long? Oh, wait, there’s still a chance I might need chemo…’
“I sent all these questions to my doctor in an email and she politely scolded me: “Cindy, this is not one of your work projects where you can plan the next six months, from start to finish. You can only plan one step at a time here because there are too many unknowns. Just focus on the next step.”
“Initially, I was really irritated that she didn’t understand, but then it sunk in on the drive home and it felt kind of liberating. There was no need to stress out about the what ifs and maybes of the future – all I could do was focus on the next step.
“In December 2015, I had a lumpectomy to remove the cancer, followed by radiation therapy which I finished in March this year. I feel incredibly lucky. I was never afraid, I always knew that I was going to be fine – it was just an inconvenient bump in the road of life.
“I’m on my own here in Dubai – I’m very close with my family in Minnesota, but, well, they are in Minnesota. My mother really wanted to come and take care of me, but she was busy taking care of my Dad who was battling ALS and sadly passed away in April. So, my Dubai family of friends were invaluable – I never felt alone. One particular friend was very ‘matter of fact’ about everything. This helped to take the emotion out of cancer, turning it into a problem to solve. It helped me keep things in perspective.Worry and anxiety doesn’t help the situation, so why stress out about the what-ifs and the maybes of the future?”
Emma Rymer, 45, is a PR manager from the UK. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer last December.
Emma says: “I first noticed a lump in my left breast while on holiday in August 2015. By November 2015, the grim faces of the specialists reading the results of a mammogram told me that something was seriously wrong. Every follow up test and appointment brought more bad news until a biopsy in December confirmed that I had stage two breast cancer. There were additional lumps, so my breast couldn’t be saved; I’d need a mastectomy.
“Through the sadness and shock, my overriding fear was that my son, William, seven, would have to grow up without me. Then suddenly, a switch flipped inside me and I started to get angry. Soon, I wasn’t crying anymore: I wanted to fight back.
“I started four months of chemo last December, and I had a left mastectomy and hysterectomy on May 4 this year. But there was more bad news to come: the post surgery results showed that the cancer had come back more aggressive than ever. I’m now getting chemo and radiotherapy treatment, which has been tough – I’ve suffered quite badly with radiation burns and my mastectomy wound has opened up – but I’ve got through it thanks to a brilliant support network, including the Pink Ladies 24/7.
“I never thought I’d want to be part of a support group – I imagined lots of holding hands, crying and singing Kumbaya – but it hasn’t been like that at all! It’s just so amazing to be able to reach out to people who get it, who have been through the same thing, and who can explain things in non-doctor language. We laugh together every day on the WhatsApp chat and there’s always visitors on chemo and surgery days, which provide the best pick me up.
“My attitude now is to be thankful for everything I have in life; I take nothing for granted, and I don’t sweat the small stuff! Believe it or not having cancer has made me a happier, more positive person and so many good things have happened to me as a result. I enjoy the good days, ride out the tough ones, and celebrate every milestone.”
Words: Aoife Stuart-Madge
Photos: Farooq Salik
Stylist: Teresa Karpinska
Hair & Make-up: Lucinda Gill and Andrea Jasarevic