My journey from the Big C to being breast cancer free

I know my illness can be fatal but life itself can be fatal too. It’s okay as long as we have a life worth celebrating.
15 Oct, 2022

It’s hard to believe I’ve reached the end of my breast cancer treatments after 15 solid months of them. Starting with the never-ending tests, then the six chemo therapies, lumpectomy, 15 radiations and finally taking the dual targeted therapies till its 18th infusion. Well, my body is facing several side-effects; I’ve lost 12 kilogrammes without dieting or exercise, which was a bonus. I needed to celebrate the fact that I’m alive and kicking, so, I went on holidays to Skardu in April and Turkey in September.

My journey began on May 28, 2021 and by 9:30pm the same night, it was confirmed that I had stage two breast cancer. Though it was cleared within six months of treatment, I underwent the whole treatment, ending on August 24, 2022 and 15 months of meetings with an oncologist. Dr Farrukh has been very happy with my progress throughout and calls me his prime patient. When I visited last time, he said laughingly, “Now the time to part has come!”

Doing it my way

I did it my way. I started my treatments with a ‘Pre-Chemo Party’ and invited my core group of friends and family. As time passes, you get sick of your sickness and everything it involves. Yet, you are elated at the thought of having beaten it — at least for the time being, and hopefully, forever! You have to keep changing your gears as you go along. It is a very tough journey, where you are faced with a new challenge at every turn. Several times I’d end up in the emergency room in the middle of the night. At home, the painting easel in my bedroom had permanently become my drip-stand after most chemo therapy sessions.

Choosing not to share

Who doesn’t love a challenge? Starting with the most challenging thing — the sale of two plots to fund my treatment. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. I reinvested the proceeds of one plot, in case my illness reemerges — it feels good to be prepared for all probabilities. I think it keeps one’s morale high.

When I look back, God knows where I got the sense to not share my news with the ‘public’. I was already an ‘influencer’ of some sort on Instagram but I was clear about not telling anyone. I needed to focus on my illness without distractions. Ironically, I spoke on Instagram about breast cancer for a pink ribbon campaign in October 2021.

I chose not to share because I knew I’d end up answering to people’s never-ending questions. There would be the onslaught of well-wishers at my home — answering their questions would be the constant challenge and so would having to deal with tactless remarks, which can hurt a lot, or make one feel depressed. I also have naysayers and didn’t want to gladden their hearts. So, my choice was clear and I’m so glad I did it.

I had to continue with my ‘normal’ life. I was doing counselling/mentoring sessions for those who asked. During those sessions, I’d be wondering what the client would say if she knew that I’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer.

In September last year, I spoke for TedxllUI on Thriving Through Difficulties.

Since I hadn’t shared my situation, I referred to my plight as a metaphorical example, asking the audience, ‘what if I have cancer?’

Cancer-free in six months

Six months of chemo cleared me of cancer. Then, I shared my cancer story through my first blog post titled ’The ‘C’ Word in December 2021. It was the toughest blog I had written in my 25 years as an author. I used to take my laptop for the chemo therapies and made full use of the undisturbed time I got during the six to eight-hour chemo session.

It was quite funny, to be doing it in that ward where the environment is all doom and gloom. I’d sit tapping away at my laptop, lost in a blog post or an article. During the early stages, I needed to pay full attention to my illness and be in full control and command of it. I have to confess there were times when I was quite weak and very ill. It was disheartening at times too, yet I refused to take the anti-depressants prescribed by the doctors.

Somehow, I wasn’t depressed. I had complete faith throughout, surrendering to God’s decisions, knowing He knows best. Mufti Salahuddin had given me special verses from the Holy Quran to recite. The best books on cancer also accept the power of the spiritual strength that comes from such readings. Being clear in six months was a big thrill for me.

A big toll on caregivers

It has taken 15 months for all the treatments to get completed. Naturally, it takes a toll on everyone, including each caregiver. Due to our heartbreaking experience with my husband’s brain tumour and death 10 years ago, the words ‘chemo’, ‘surgery’ and ‘radiation’ resonated separate horrors.

My daughter Waliya was with me from the first day. Then Nataliya, my eldest daughter, joined us in July from Seattle. Things were getting very rough by then. She made nourishing broth for me and studied my case in great detail, taking special care of me. My other daughter Nadiya came from Canada a day before her eldest sister returned in September. Together with her toddler, the environment became much lighter at home. Waliya and my son-in-law Faizan managed all the hospital appointments and treatments there. She could relax when her elder sisters took care of the home ground. Nataliya came again with her whole family in December and stayed till January, till my radiations ended.

Meeting friends for emotional well-being

Chemo compromises your immunity and along with that came the threat of Covid. I was advised to stay clear of people but fortunately or unfortunately, I’m a people person and so I met my friends throughout albeit while keeping a social distance. After all, I was meetings doctors and nurses anyway. It was vital for my emotional wellbeing to remain in touch with those who made happy.

My friend from Lahore, Riffat, came to stay with me for four days. Tanvir came on a day trip, as did Fairy, Fitrat and Ayesha. They came loaded with gifts and joy for me. I also received fabulous gifts from my friends and cancer survivors whether I knew them or not.

My Islamabad friends Uzma and Haroon met me whenever they could, often sending goodies. Sadia would often go with me to hospital, or take me for drives. Amber guided me throughout (she survived stage four cancer). Farkhanda was ready with her collection of special prayers, and visited me often, as did Naila and Seema.

The end of my treatment

By the end of this treatment, you seem to lose your resources of energy, spirits and finances. You have walked through every fear and need to consciously keep your spirits high. I knew that one needs to fight this illness mostly by keeping one’s head in the right place. I became a bit of a daredevil and independent, so, I’d love going alone for my radiation some times. In this way, I’d be giving a break to my caregivers.

I’d happily drive to the hospital, which had become like a second home. My oncologist Dr Farrukh’s words, “your job is to be happy. Leave the rest to us,” meant a lot to me. Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad is truly international with high standards of treatment. The staff is very competent and bills are also of international standard! I had to tell myself not to get upset. At least I was receiving best treatment in my own country and was able to be with my mother who gave me strength by saying, “You will fly through it.”

Keeping perspective by helping others

In life I’d already learnt never to pity myself. The way to go about it is by looking at those who are have greater problems than yours. Naturally, in hospital there were many. One of them was this four-year-old boy with a brain tumour whom I met while waiting for my bone scan test. Along with our amazing followers on Instagram, my daughter Waliya and I raised a lot of cash to help his father treat him. In the end though, we lost the battle for his son’s life. Yet, we felt happy that at least his father was able to give his son the best.

Besides a few more medical cases, I continued with my charity work of feeding the poor during my treatment. That continued throughout my illness, even though I was advised to stop, carrying on with it motivated me to get better.

Of course, I know my illness can be fatal. Life itself can be fatal too. Paradoxically, those who don’t have this illness also lose their lives. But it’s okay, as long as we have a life worth celebrating.