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I’m a Survivor: A Saudi Woman’s Breast Cancer Story


Illustration by Gina Dionisio for Vogue Arabia.

As World Cancer Awareness Day looms on February 4th, we look to inspiring stories of strength and determination from Arab women in the face of cancer.

“I’ve always seen breast cancer awareness ads in the streets, but I’d look away—just like most women here in Saudi Arabia. Cancer scares people, and especially so here in the Middle East. People think that cancer is hereditary, and that if a girl has a cancer patient in her family, it will stand in the way of her getting married. It is so terrifying that we avoid mentioning ‘breast cancer’ and instead call it, ‘the dreaded disease.’”

Awatef Muhammad Alhoshan, a mother of five, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 45-years-old. “I was taking a shower when I sensed that there was a lump in my breast—but I led a normal lifestyle: I was not a smoker and I only ate at home, and was sure to use healthy fats when I cooked. I didn’t think the lump was a big deal, until both my daughter and sister insisted that I go see a doctor,” she shares with Vogue Arabia.

The doctor ordered a mammogram and ultrasound tests and both showed lumps. It had to be determined if they were malignant. The doctor performed a breast biopsy, and a radiologist used a thin, hollow needle to remove tissue samples from her breast mass. The biopsy confirmed cancer.

“I didn’t hide the results from my family,” says Alhoshan. “I only didn’t tell my late mother because she was very ill at the time and I didn’t want to worry her,” she adds before adding that her husband—a retired navy pilot—was her staunchest supporter.

Fortunately, Alhoshan’s cancer was detected at an early stage. The tumor was small (2 cms), but it had begun to spread to the auxiliary lymph nodes. She needed a mastectomy and lymph nodes removal surgery. Alhoshan was put under general anesthesia and the surgeon removed her breast tissue, and then all 20 of her lymph nodes. “Removing the lymph nodes was like demolishing my arm’s first line of defense. I will not be able to do any heavy lifting with one arm for the rest of my life,” says Alhoshan. Following the mastectomy, a plastic surgeon rebuilt her breast mound to match the size and shape of the original by taking muscle from the lower region of her abdomen and attaching it to her breast area.

The next phase of treatment demanded that Alhoshan take four doses of chemo-therapy(a drug treatment for cancer that targets quickly dividing cancer cells and stops their division)with 20-day gaps in between. Alhoshan finished the chemo-therapy in approximately three months. “By the time I took the second dose of chemo, my body was exhausted and fragile, and I didn’t have the energy to fight the side effects that came with a whirlwind of mixed emotions and weakness. The chemo changed the color and texture of my nails; caused my skin to become irritated; I had mood swings; abad appetite; and worst of all, I was losing my hair,” shares Alhoshan.

During the chemo treatments, she was instructedto stick to a strict diet.“I wasn’t allowed to eat spicy foods or any dishes with lemon or too many acids in them—the chemo makes the stomach so sensitive that such foods might cause inflammations,” she explains.

Following the chemo-therapy, it took her a month to regain her strength and rid her body of the remaining chemo. After two months, her hair started to grow back.

Alhoshan’s healing process took a full year. She underwent a full-body test and it showed no signs of cancer.“I felt so relived. I was prescribed Tamoxifen, which is a preventive drug for breast cancer. It serves to balance the female hormones, which are usually connected to breast cancer when it reaches high levels. I took these pills for five years,” she explains. There is always a small possibility that the illness can come back.

Many women in our society resort to popular or traditional non-medical therapies when diagnosed with cancer, but those will never cure it.The survival rates change between 93-100% when detecting cancer at stages 1 or 2. Unequivocally, early breast cancer detection saved Alhoshan’s life. “Conquer your fears, follow the doctor’s instructions, and take care of yourself,” she smiles.

Discover the Zahra Breast Cancer Association in Saudi Arabia.

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