Originally printed in the February 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
The concept for Cancer Patient Care Society – Rahma germinated almost two decades ago, after the chairman, Jamal Al Suwaidi, director general of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, was diagnosed with lymphoma. “A doctor told him he had two weeks to live,” says his daughter Nora, who is Rahma’s director and has a master’s degree in public health. “He said, ‘I am an educated man and I don’t know what to do. What about the fisherman in Fujairah? Why don’t we have societies that help cancer patients after they’re diagnosed?’”
Al Suwaidi’s cancer has been in remission for almost a decade. Three years ago, he helped launch Rahma, which borrows its name from the Arabic word for compassion. Modeled after patient focused cancer societies in the West, Rahma has been quietly helping hundreds of people during scary and traumatizing times. “People say they don’t know about us, and I say that’s a good thing – it means you don’t have cancer,” says Al Suwaidi. “We’re here for cancer patients.”
Rahma offers a variety of services, including financial assistance, liaising with facilities overseas for second opinions, offering rides to treatment, hosting support groups, arranging hair donations, and organizing outside travel plans. It also offers free mammograms, tests for the BRCA gene, and Pap smears.
February 4 is World Cancer Day. In the Middle East, the number of cancer diagnoses is predicted to double over the next 20 years to almost a million per year – the highest rates in the world – according to the World Health Organization. Cancer kills about 400 000 people across the region every year.
The fear upon hearing a cancer diagnosis is universal, says Al Suwaidi. “People think they are going to die.” Yet cancer patients in the Arab region face additional, often unanticipated, difficulties. Cancer is still a taboo subject, and in some more remote areas it is even believed to be contagious – despite all evidence to the contrary. This leads to social isolation. A large expatriate population living far from home and family lacks social support, while insurance battles and disappointments are common. And underlining everything is the fact that while diagnostics are good, cancer treatment is still in its infancy, says Al Suwaidi. “Our main job is to hold these patients’ hands after the doctor says, ‘Yes, you have cancer.’” After her father’s experience and working with Rahma, Al Suwaidi believes that 50% of the battle against the disease is up to the person who has it. “You don’t give up on yourself, you fight it,” she says. “Surround yourself with positive people, fight it like it’s war.” Here are three breast cancer survivors who did just that.
56, was diagnosed in 2004
“When my doctor found a lump in my breast, I wondered if it was because I had just breastfed my baby. It was a huge shock for me and my whole family; we’ve never had a cancer diagnosis. Everybody was calling me and crying. I asked God to be with me and go through it with me. I had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. From there, life goes on. My youngest was a
year old, my other two children were 12 and 14. It was hard because I decided to have my treatment in London, so I was away from them. For a year, we visited each other. The one thing I asked them was to work hard at school, as my reward. And they did well. Chemotherapy is like pregnancy – everyone experiences it differently. For me, it was hard, but I wanted to finish it. That’s what kept me going. I wanted to get back to my kids. I now see things in a different way. I don’t waste my time with people who aren’t worth it. People always think about death when they think about cancer, but I said no, it’s not my time to go. If it happens again, I hope God gives me strength.”
41, was diagnosed in May 2016
“I found a lump in my left breast five years ago. I went for a mammogram and they said they’ll observe it as it was nothing suspicious. When I went back in April 2016, I could see the margin of the cyst had changed. When it changes, it means that something is not good. I was upset at the doctor. I’m not the one who’s supposed to take the action. I was angry at the doctor because she is the one who is supposed to push me. My son didn’t know. I was cautious not to show him. I didn’t want him to have any idea about this, because he is so sensitive and I don’t want to add extrastress in his life. I also waited until I started my chemotherapy to tell my mother. My sister is in Dubai, and my brother came from Ukraine when I had my surgery. They were very supportive. The chemo afterwards was OK, I expected worse. I still have pain and limited hand movement from the surgery – I used to do swing yoga but I can’t do that anymore. I’m still wearing my wig. My lashes have grown back so I feel more beautiful, but the hair is still very short. It takes time.”
43, was diagnosed in May 2015
“I found a lump while I was showering. I was shocked, I never thought it would happen to me, so I was really surprised. I was also very scared and sad. I thought my life was over. It was overwhelming in the beginning. I had to leave my family here in Dubai to go to the US for treatment. My two older boys stayed behind but I took my youngest with me. We stayed for about a year, during which I had chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and radiotherapy. I also had to remove my ovaries, because my breast cancer was feeding off estrogen and progesterone, and then I ended up having the BRCA gene. Things kept getting worse. It was tough. I have been a fitness instructor for about 20 years, so exercise played a big role in my treatment. I also started meditation and yoga. I’ve always been passionate about health and fitness, but now even more so. I also don’t waste time on things that don’t matter. And I count my blessings. I like to tell people that they’re going to be OK, but they have to keep a positive attitude. You’re always scared, but that’s what helped me – never losing faith. Before my diagnosis, I thought I was invincible: I’m so healthy, I exercise every day, it’s not going to happen to me. But now I know that it can happen to anybody. The best thing you can do is to always be in touch with your body and to listen to the signs.”