Coping With Cancer

A young mother’s story

Posted: 22.10.12

Farhana Alam from Glasgow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, a year after giving birth to her daughter Noor and a few weeks before her own 30th birthday.

After breastfeeding my daughter Noor one day, I noticed something unusual on my breast; a small lump. I put it down to a blocked milk duct due to breastfeeding. Over the months the lump got bigger. I mentioned it to my mum and she immediately suggested I go to the GP to get it checked. My doctor was also unconcerned but sent me for an ultrasound nonetheless and I was referred to the hospital. The appointment was on a morning when I would have typically been in University, where I was studying for my PhD in Linguistics. After the ultrasound, I had a biopsy and mammogram all on the same day.

Finding Out
I remember being at the hospital and the doctors constantly asking me if I wanted to ring anyone. ‘Could you please tell me what’s the concern?’ I urged them. Breast cancer was not on my radar at all even at this point. I was already late for University and I just wanted to get out of the hospital.

Then at the age of 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had just had a baby and could not believe this was happening to me. The news was so out of the blue. I was so young, healthy and had no risk factors for breast cancer, which made the news even harder to bear. I was absolutely petrified and so many thoughts were running through my mind. The scariest one was about my daughter; what if I didn’t live to see her grow up.

The scans revealed that although my cancer hadn’t spread and was confined to my breast, it was stage three and the tumour was very large. The treatment they recommended consisted of chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. I underwent chemotherapy before my operation which I remember finding very peculiar. I thought surely they should take out the tumour first and then start the chemo. The doctors explained that due to the size of my tumour they wouldn’t be able to remove it within the necessary margins. Therefore they had to shrink it first before removing it.

Loosing a breast

The treatments really wore my body out. I would always be left feeling horribly sick and would vomit a lot, especially a week after my chemo cycle. This played havoc on my emotions as I was always feeling so tired, weak and emotional. I would get horribly upset at the thought of not being able to carry out simple tasks such as walking up the stairs or to the kitchen which was hard for me to take in as I was always a very active person. I felt like my independence had been snatched away from me as I had to have everything done for me. I couldn’t even breastfeed my baby let alone pick her up and play with her, which was extremely upsetting and hard for me to deal with.

After the surgery on my breast I wore a prosthesis for a while but I found it very uncomfortable and knew I wouldn’t be able to do this forever. I felt far too young to have to wear a prosthesis so I waited to have reconstruction on my breast.

For my reconstructed breast, surgeons took muscle out of my back and it was transferred into my breast. After reconstruction on my affected breast, it was noticeable that my breasts were uneven so I decided to have a breast reduction on my other breast to even them out which made me feel better.

The type of cancer I had grew on the hormone oestrogen, so I also had radiotherapy and hormone treatment to block the hormone which effectively put me into an early menopause.

As a Muslim woman I am never going reveal my body in low cut tops and bikinis so in that respect it hasn’t affected me as much as it would other people. The only people who are going to see my scars are myself and my partner. I also believe that my scars are such a small price to pay for my life and being alive.

Cultural difficulties

Originally I didn’t tell a lot of people about my cancer because I didn’t want sympathy. Telling my immediate family was slightly embarrassing at first, especially to my male relations, as your breast is such a private part of your body. I used to feel very uncomfortable talking about it in front of everyone especially if female relatives would bring it up in front of male relatives. However, I soon got over it because I realised it’s an illness like any other and has happened to me.

I found that the Asian community don’t really know what to say in these situations. While my parents were absolutely fantastic in their support and understanding, my other family and friends didn’t really know how to help. Although they offered to help through babysitting or making meals they didn’t really understand what I was going through and at times I felt as if they didn’t want to.

In the Asian community issues such as breast cancer are very much ignored and brushed under the carpet, something that I feel I experienced. I wear the hijab so people couldn’t see that I’d lost my hair, therefore they didn’t see the real extent of what I was going through. As a result of this my friends and family would come over and see me putting on a brave face and they would think that I was fine. I felt as if I lacked a lot of emotional support, which was something I needed much more than anything.
There is still such a taboo in the Asian community about private parts of the body such as breasts and testicles and we were never taught to check them by our families. Before I was diagnosed I never ever used to check my breasts but I would advise all women to please routinely do so. I just happened to find out through breastfeeding, otherwise I doubt I would have realised.

Treatment may have affected my chances of having more children, and being from an Asian family, a large family and children is something that is expected of you. I have had people come up to me and comment on the fact that I only have one child which really upsets me because I just think ‘you have no idea what I have been through and am going through.’

Moving On

Having cancer has affected my every day life greatly. Losing my hair was a pivotal moment in my life. I used to have such long, healthy hair which was my pride and joy and it was so hard to see it all go. My hair began to slowly fall out, a little clump on the sofa and a little clump on the pillow, so one day I decided to ask my mum to shave it all off.

It was such an emotional moment in my life. I remember sitting in the bathroom with her as she was doing it and both of us just crying our eyes out. We couldn’t believe it had come to this, I literally felt like I could see myself falling apart piece by piece. Although it was a tough moment, I’m really grateful to my mum for doing it as it would have been harder to see it falling out bit by bit.

The NHS were wonderful and provided me with wigs to wear, however deep down inside I knew myself that it wasn’t my real hair. I also used Breast Cancer Care’s HeadStrong service, which provides information and support for women experiencing hair loss after cancer. As well as practical tips about wearing a head scarf, for me the course was also about meeting women who were going through the same illness and who understood what I was feeling.

Being able to talk to other women who have suffered from breast cancer is one of the things that has helped me most. I have managed to make a lot of new friends and have a network of people who have been through the same thing as me. However, there weren’t any other people from ethnic minorities at the services that I attended so I would like to emphasise how important and helpful services can be.

Looking back I believe it was in my destiny to have my daughter Noor as she was the one who made me realise I had the lump. I also think that God planned it on purpose, as my journey through breast cancer was necessary for me to realise that I need to start putting myself first. I now have a completely different approach to life and I feel it has totally changed me.

Before my illness I would get stressed out very quickly and I used to let little things get to me. Now I don’t let myself worry or get stressed out because I just think little things are not worth it. Once you have cancer and beat it, you feel as if you can take on absolutely anything in the world and it really puts things into perspective.

My hopes for the future are to hopefully still be around during my little girl’s life. I would love to be able to finish my PhD which I had to leave half way through, so I am planning on going back to studying next year. I would like to spread the message of breast awareness, especially in the Asian community. I hope I can make a difference to at least one person and remove some of the community taboos and embarrassment associated with an illness like breast cancer.

HeadStrong is a free advisory service from Breast Cancer Care for people facing hair loss as a result of cancer treatment. It offers practical and emotional support from specially trained volunteers, many of whom have been through the same experience themselves. Visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk to find out more and book an appointment.

Interview by Kanchan Tooray

 

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