Cancer is a loaded word. For many people it carries the emotional weight of fear, sorrow, and pain. Harper’s Bazaar Arabia speaks to two women who understand the baggage that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis. Both of these women use their experiences to help others affected by the disease, breaking down barriers and pushing the mentality that we shouldn’t be afraid to open up.
Here, Umaimma Tinwala and Fakhria Lutfi explain the valuable life lessons that they have gained.
Umaima received news that her “tiny lump” was an aggressive form of stage one breast cancer just a year after her mother died of ovarian cancer. Following a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a year of medication, she has been cancer-free for two years.
My priorities in life have changed
After I fell sick, I wanted to work my own hours. I was a journalist working late nights and attending events… I lost count of the number of hours I was working! Now I have my own media agency – I have made adjustments so I can be flexible to help people without the excuse of having to be at the office.
You don’t have to be someone’s best friend in order to help them
Sometimes I felt like a superstar. People all over the world have prayed for me. A friend in South Africa ran a marathon for me. When I was in India, where I’m originally from, my cousins made a WhatsApp group so that I was never alone in the hospital. In Dubai people offered to drive me to my appointments, or outside to get a change of scenery and fresh air.
I am there for other people more now. It doesn’t need to be your best friend, it could be your neighbour – just one small thing, like cooking a meal and taking it over, is enough.
Challenges show you who cares
There were people who were close to me that disappeared. When I look at it now I’m glad, because I know when push comes to shove they won’t be there for me. That’s toxicity I don’t need in my life.
My daughter is incredible
Now my daughter is 12, and she was with me all the time. She has matured beyond her years but I don’t see that as a bad thing. She is extremely kind and wise. Last week her school asked for Dhs10 donations for a breast cancer charity and she put in more money. She told me, "I did it for myself. Because of our family history, doing this today may help me tomorrow."
We need to break down the taboo
Some women don’t get checked because there is a taboo, and some people think it’s your fault. People need to understand that it can happen to anyone, and there was nothing I did to bring this on. The more we talk about it, the less fear there will be.
Fakhria was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2004, a year after giving birth to her first baby. She had a mastectomy, as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and has been cancer-free ever since.
Life is more important than looks
As soon as I had the mastectomy I felt clear [of cancer] mentally. Psychologically, it can affect a lot of people, but I just wanted to be clear. I didn’t care how I looked. Life is more important than a part of my body.
Faith helps in the hardest situations
Being a Muslim, all my strength came from Allah. Praying helped. This was the first and only thing that helped me at the worst times.
Positivity is extremely important
It changed my view of life. I appreciate how to be happy. I crossed a lot of negative people out of my life… a lot of people who I expected to be supportive were not; and others who I didn’t expect to be there for me were there.
I got rid of negative energy but I also gained energy from others. My advice is to be with positive people. People telling me [negative stories] didn’t help. Those who told me about people they knew who recovered and are still alive today, those are the people who really helped.
Talk to people about how you feel
A few days ago my best friend in the US told me she had breast cancer. She has a small family and she said, "How can I tell them? What can they do?" I told her that if she tells them she will find out. When you talk to people you find support everywhere – even when you go for treatment – and you will see who you want to be with.
I talk about cancer as I would talk about any other disease. And when you talk about a problem, psychologically it’s a relief.