Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent types of cancer, which can affect both men and women, and through early detection, can be treated faster. Every year the month of October is dedicated to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, encouraging people to perform self-checkups and get examinations from doctors.
With early detection, breast cancer is treatable. In a report by the Ministry of Health and Prevention in the UAE in 2019, 20.2% of cases were linked to breast cancer, and the rates of treating breast cancer are high in the country at 89%.
Connector spoke to a UAE resident Usha Shah, a mother to three children from the United Kingdom, who homeschools her youngest child with special needs, and shared her journey, as a breast cancer survivor.
In May 2020, right after her son's birthday, Usha Shah felt a lump in her right breast when she was sleeping, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she ignored it, as with restrictions, it was difficult to venture outside.
Towards the end of August, Usha Shah began to feel really tired, and as she was going for a routine check-up with the gynaecologist, she decided to get it looked at.
Usha Shah said, "In August, I was feeling very unwell. I went to see the gynaecologist because I have these fibroids, so I wanted to go and get it checked out. I mentioned the breast being really heavy, I could not even lift it, and she said, you need to go right now for a scan. When I had gone for a scan, they immediately told me during the scan that this is not good news."
There are four stages of breast cancer, and based on the diagnosis, can depend on the severity of the disease and the course of action required to treat it. Stage one occurs when the cancer has spread to tissues in a small area, and leads to stage two when a tumour is formed and starts affecting the lymph nodes. In stage three, the cancer spreads to a larger area like the chest and skin wall, and in stage four, spreads from the breast to other parts of the body.
After receiving her results in September at the age of 48, Usha Shah was informed that her breast cancer was in the late stage three, and had to make a decision quickly, as the cancer had already affected her lymph nodes, and needed to prevent it from spreading even further.
Usha Shah said, "When I had gone to see the oncologist, she said, you literally got not more than ten days to make a decision because otherwise, you will be reaching further into your stage. You are already in late stage three. It already moved into my lymph nodes."
Unsure of which hospital to visit and get treatment, Usha Shah further added, "The actual confirmation was received on 18 September. It was actually my wedding anniversary, when I got a phone call on a Friday morning from the scan biopsy to say it was confirmed, and I had to start thinking about treatment immediately. I did not feel great. After the grieving, I had to literally jump in and get on with trying to find out what to do."
Usha Shah's husband informed her about the breast cancer support group, Brest Friends, and after getting in touch with them, she began treatment during Breast Cancer Awareness Month at Mediclinic City Hospital.
The treatment for breast cancer was an extensive one, where Usha Shah had to undergo 16 sessions of chemotherapy, followed by five weeks of radiation and then a single mastectomy, where 10 lymph nodes were removed.
Usha Shah was diagnosed during the pandemic, making the journey was a difficult one, as there were restrictions, face masks were mandatory, and people were not permitted to enter during the treatments. However, the medical professionals at the hospital were a strong pillar of strength for her, and were not only there to tend to her treatment, but also provide emotional support.
Usha Shah said, "We had to rely on the support from the nurses, and, the nurses are absolutely brilliant. I could not have asked for anything more. They became not just your nurses, your carers, your support team, they became your friends and your family. They had to hold your hand, they had to listen to your cries, and had to listen to everything. It could not have been easy for them because I was just one patient, but people were coming in all the time, and those beds were never empty in the chemo ward."
The support of family and friends is critical in coming out of the journey stronger, and Usha Shah was able to lean on them through it all. As it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, she used to let her family and friends know when she had to go in for her treatment, and they supported her from afar through video calls. Usha Shah added, "There was a lot of love and support and I would not have been able to get through it without that. From friends and family, just building together and working together, gave me hope to get through."
After treatment, a person is in remission, where the chances and signs of the cancer have reduced. People that are in remission for over five years, have lower rates of the cancer coming back. After follow-up check-ups and scans were conducted to detect if there were any traces of cancer in the body, Usha Shah has been in remission since October 2021. Despite this, she is still currently taking medications daily and injections for preventative measures as part of her treatment plan.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment is a difficult process and can take a toll on a person's physical and mental health. It takes over two years for the chemotherapy to leave the system, people deal with a variety of symptoms, and Usha Shah still experiences after effects of sharp pain in the leg and chest.
One of the scariest things about cancer for Usha Shah was the thought of losing her life and not being there for her family saying, "When I was told on the phone that we think that you reach stage three, you automatically think you are going to die. Your initial thoughts are, how is your family going to cope? How are they going to manage the home? All of these things start flooding through your mind."
Usha Shah lost both of her parents to battles with cancer, where her mother was detected with ovarian cancer. Wanting to take preventative measures, Usha Shah got regular smear checks and never expected to end up being diagnosed with breast cancer. People with a family history are more susceptible to cancer, and after her diagnosis of breast cancer, a genetics test was done and she was ruled out for carrying the gene.
Usha Shah advises people to regularly perform self-examinations, and visit the doctor, if they have any of the symptoms. From May 2020, when she first felt the lump, to getting her diagnosis in September the same year, the cancer had turned from a lump to spreading into the breast and forming a mass. She added, "Women need to have annual health checks. I would not even just say over 40 years old, because nowadays breast cancer is happening to younger women and you are hearing about a lot of stories. Do regular health checks yourself by checking your breasts. You can do it while you are in the shower, or while you are getting ready. Just have it once a month in your calendar that you are going to check it on this day. Have regular mammograms if you can. Smear tests should be done every year and they should not be skipped. I think if any women can just keep up with doing these things and keeping up with their health, because health is the biggest investment. Without good health, you are nothing. You are not going to be able to enjoy your life. It is so easy for cancer, if you have it, to spread aggressively. You have to get yourself checked."