Dances Within.

Written by Adham Farah

Foreword: This piece is dedicated to a breast cancer patient who revealed her thoughts and feelings with me the night before her mastectomy. Her exceptional perseverance during her sickness inspired many around her and filled them with hope. In writing this, I hope to succeed in translating all that she felt that night here.

Late at night, fear awakened my trembling soul, and I was left wondering, wondering, pondering, pondering..

Fear intertwined with anger danced within me, even mocked me, as I roamed a lonely path. Strange sounds screamed into my ears as the hums of pity echoed their cries and I was left with an utter loss of feeling.

Suddenly, my mind and senses were dulled; absolute silence surrounded me. I felt unable to breathe. I released a lamenting cry; Will I ever revive? Will my spirit return to me, or is it lost to the voices that have made me shrink and stare at my own mirror with fear and anger?

As a lonely actress performing her final act on stage, I sobbed because I knew that this very play would never take place again. As I looked towards the faces in the audience watching me, I felt pity and admiration; all at once. Even those familiar ones that once stared at me with admiration, now pierced my heart with their cold eyes and turned their gaze away from me; ashamed of what I was becoming.

Yet I resist and persist, determined not to let this cruel act take me as its victim.

One lingering question kept revolving in my mind as I twisted and turned, tangled in my sweat. A question that tormented my sleepless night and propelled my imagination into its darkest corners. A question I am not the first to ask yet one that might distract me from my fate, even if temporarily: why has this sickness chosen me?

I could feel my body start to change and the firm grasp I thought I had on it, slowly release. With every strained breath I took, scars carved deep into my soul. Yet no one seemed to notice anything about me changing. Perhaps I hid it too well, or perhaps they simply did not want to see it..

Tonight, as my weak body abandons itself to its destiny, my focus deviates towards my loved ones; those innocent souls who do not deserve to suffer with me. And this is when I hear, in the distance, the soothing call of survival destroying the chains of death. I am determined to crawl deep through the torrid mud of sickness and pain to reach it.

And I know that one day, I will.

Flashback. Then Forward.

Written by Lara Safar

Today 4 years ago, I learned something that changed my life forever.
Today 4 years ago, I had discovered a piece of me I never knew existed.
Today 4 years ago, I said shit and actually felt it.
Today 4 years ago, I understood how unknown the future is.
Today 4 years ago, I had to break the heart of the people I love most.
Today 4 years ago, I cried my balls out.

But all that was 4 years ago. It was when I thought that that piece of me was toxic.
When actually – that little piece (little but powerful piece) made me taste survival. It also presented me to everything I love today.

So today I’m thankful.
Today I’m hopeful.
Today is a new day. And I hope many more of those will keep comin’.
And today – I call every woman out there to listen to her body if it ever cries, to always have hope, and most importantly, to keep that killer smile.
Because damn what a killer that smile is.

Lara-FlashbackthenForward

Lara’s Story: Two Years Later

We first interviewed Lara two years ago but even with the time that’s passed since, her story continues to inspire until today – as has been proven with the tremendous response her post has garnered in the past week when we re-shared the original post. And it comes at a perfectly-fitting time with breast cancer month in full swing and the need for the right awareness ever-present. Nothing gets the message across better than hearing it from someone who has not only fought but beat cancer because of early detection.

For those of you who have been closely following Lara’s story and are wondering how she’s doing today, we did the following interview to share with you the latest chapter in her ever-inspiring story. Life may be going one way once you’ve just completed treatment, but how much (or little) do things change when one year, two years, or more have passed?

To get more insight on this subject, we posed a few questions to this very inspirational survivor and here’s what she had to say:

1. In our first interview, you introduced yourself as Lara, the “twenty-seven-year-old breast cancer survivor”. How has this introduction evolved since and how do you introduce yourself today?

I was chatting with a friend of mine last week about someone who recently got diagnosed with breast cancer – and for a moment I had completely forgotten that I had undergone the same thing!

I think our mind is programmed in a way to keep us going without looking behind – except when we purposely choose to.

2. Has the experience left any physical scars?

I have a couple but they are barely noticeable thanks to my genius doctor, whom I love!

Other than that, does a tattoo count?

I was once labeled as a girl who had cancer. Now, I am labeled as a survivor – literally.

Lara's tattoo

3. More than 5K views and 1.6K likes later: your post on our website has undoubtedly reached a wide audience and touched many. How did people, in general, react to your story (especially those who didn’t know it before) and are there any notable responses that were shared as a result of the post?

I’ve received lots of messages from friends and random people admiring my courage and stating I was an inspiration; all of which delighted me. However, my aim is to raise awareness and encourage women to get examined. I guess I’ll never know for sure whether they’re doing it or not, but I’d like to think they are.

4. How would you describe life post-cancer? Any self-discoveries along the way since our last chat?

In the previous interview two years ago, I had mentioned how I am still very much the same person: still the same friends and still enjoying the same things in life. This still stands. And all those stories you hear or read about how someone had completely metamorphosed are either fictional or perhaps I am just odd. I hope it isn’t the latter!

I must say, though, that today my appetite towards discovering new things has definitely multiplied; simple pleasures can make me euphoric.

Oh – and one thing that has constantly been changing in the past three years is my hairstyle.

LaraTwoYearsLater-Photo02E

5. Speaking of which: has your hair grown back to the way it used to be before chemotherapy? What’s happened to your wig since?

When I had very long hair, I used to threaten hairdressers not to cut more than a centimeter or so. Now I can’t stay away from my adored hairdresser for more than a month.

Only recently have I been growing it back a little but every time I come across a woman with short hair, my heart goes “boom!”: it’s bold, it’s got attitude – it’s different.

Concerning my wig, it’s in the same place it has been since my bald days: deep down in the closet – speaking of which, I’d like to donate it to a cancer patient who will actually wear it!

6. We can’t help but smile each time we look at your “Finish Line” photograph in our previous interview. Do you do anything special to celebrate each year since completing your treatment?

The ultimate celebration will happen once they find a cure. There are so many women out there fighting breast cancer, so we haven’t won the war yet. However, we’re winning many battles thanks to early detection.

I’d like to quote my dear brother here:

“Every milestone is a celebration. Every survivor is a celebration of life. It springs hope in people and inspires them to remain positive and be mentally ready to challenge and beat cancer. We always have to celebrate our small wins in everything we do. This leads the path to bigger celebration – which in this case is cure.”

7. One of the biggest fears women who’ve undergone cancer treatment share is a fear of recurrence. Does that fear diminish as the years pass and what are your particular thoughts on this?

I don’t really think about it unless I’m prompted. There’s no point in living in anxiety and fear of something that’s uncertain: it just drains all your energy and for nothing! This applies to everything in life, not just health.

Hopefully it will never come back, but if it does, I now know the drill and I will do my utmost best to kick its ass the same way I did before.. if not stronger!

8. What does the month of October mean to you as a survivor?

I love it when in October I see random people wearing the pink ribbon, shops changing their window display to pink or nail bars promoting their pink range. It’s just so cool!

But at the same time, I hope awareness is being raised through all of this and that it’s not just for show. I also hope that awareness is not just brought up during this particular month but rather continued all year long.

LaraTwoYearsLater-03

9. Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women reading this?

For starters, stop postponing your routine medical check-ups.

Yes, we all dislike wasting those two hours at the doctor’s waiting area but what are two hours compared to hundreds of hours spent in chemotherapy sessions, radiation therapy, surgery, bed rest.. You get the picture.

Even more so: those two hours could extend someone’s lifetime so please go waste them – and with a smile.

And take your mama with ya!

10. We would like to end our interview with a similar question to that with which we closed our first interview: What kind of breast cancer work and/or awareness would you like to see more of in the region?

Currently, most awareness campaigns are targeted towards women above a certain age. They are often lunches for socialites where large donations are expected, where awareness is disseminated in an old-fashioned way, etc. So what I’d love to witness is more striking campaigns and events targeting the younger generation who seem to believe they are not at risk.

Ideally, awareness campaigns that are able to convert into results whereby each and every woman gets a check-up and help us really fight the war against breast cancer.

So whomever wants to join forces, please raise your hand!

LaraTwoYearsLater-04* All photographs in this interview are provided courtesy of Lara.

انا مش هينة

I know it’s been a while since I’ve shared any of my stories with you, but I just got back from another journey. For the past few months, I’ve been accompanying a new woman through her cancer treatment and couldn’t really leave her side until I knew she was ok. Now that she’s feeling much better and no longer really needs me (plus her hair has grown back), let me take this chance to share her story. By preparing for the worst upon hearing her diagnosis, I could tell her attitude was going to help her get through it. Cancer is scary but sometimes we give it more power than we should. It was a difficult phase in and of itself for her, but she also realized that it could be much worse and that she was stronger than she thought she was. “It’s good that it’s me and not my kids or husband.. I’m best to handle it” she told me one night. This strong maternal instinct allowed her to accept what was happening and not dwell on the detrimental “why me?”. One of the things she dreaded though was the hospital visits. I think it made her feel vulnerable and more sick than she was really feeling. No one likes hospitals if they’re a patient anyway, right? When she was diagnosed, word quickly spread. Everyone suddenly knew! It wasn’t something in her hands although she would have preferred to keep it private if only to not worry others about her condition. Sometimes it bothered her how people she didn’t speak to much before were suddenly concerned: “I don’t want people to just be there and ask about me when things are bad. Where were they when things were good but I also would have liked to have them in my life?” Even though everyone knew, she dealt with her treatment in privacy and even kept her children away so as not to deter their image of her during this frail period. Can you relate to this feeling? We didn’t take much turns with wearing the wig as I’d had with other women before her so it stayed on my head for most of her treatment. Definitely a first. When I asked her why, she said it was uncomfortable and weighed on her emotionally. The only time it really mattered for her to wear one was at her sister’s wedding so that she wouldn’t stand out. I saw some of the pictures and could barely tell she was wearing one. “انا مش هينة” which translated into English means “I’m tough” was her personal discovery along this journey. She said it with glowing pride and you could tell it was also an achievement for her. Right when our time was coming to a close, I asked her for some advice to pass on to the next women I meet along my journey. Her words? “Be cool. Life is harder than cancer. Just accept it as it is and remember, this is just another year. It will pass.”

Behind-the-Scenes of “The Bald and the Beautiful”

A few weeks ago, we came across Katie’s personal breast cancer blog, cleverly entitled”The Bald and The Beautiful” on the Canadian breast cancer blogging platform Facing Cancer Together. Her light-hearted and descriptive writing style takes us along with her on the journey of recovery. Part of the healing process for many survivors is putting it in writing, and reading her blog you know she’s not holding back. We took a few minutes to interview Katie to find out more about her story:

Katy didn’t have a wig stand during treatment, so she sent us a photo of how she kept her wig in place – on a glass vase. Does the trick doesn’t it?

1. How did you find out that you had breast cancer? 

I found a lump in my right breast. It was the size of a golf ball and I could not only feel it, but also see it when I took off my bra. I told my family doctor about it when I went for my yearly physical and she ordered an ultrasound, which showed no reason for concern. A follow-up appointment was booked three months later when another ultrasound was done. At the follow-up appointment, I also had a mammogram and it was the mammogram that showed reason for concern. I had a biopsy 13 days later and 11 days after that I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

2. What was your first thought upon hearing the diagnosis?

My very first thought was one of disbelief. I didn’t think you could get breast cancer at 26 with no family history of it so to be honest, I wasn’t shocked – I just really didn’t believe it. I guess that was followed by numbness; it took a while to set in that I actually had cancer. Actually, I’m not sure if it ever really set in. It still, to this day, feels like I’m lying when I say “I’ve had cancer.” I also felt embarrassed in the very beginning, even though I had no control over what was growing in my body. I felt embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know in the first couple of weeks.

3. What was treatment like?

Chemo is just a word until you’re the one who’s about to go through it. The night before my first treatment, I was so overwhelmed with the ‘unknowns’ that I was about to face but the nurses made me feel comfortable as soon as I walked into the cancer centre. Everyone reacts differently so I was aware of what MIGHT happen but no one could tell me for sure how I would react.

“I just kept thinking, if I feel this bad, imagine how the cancer must be feeling.”

I had 6 chemo treatments and I reacted differently to each one of them. There were days when I was throwing up and other days when I wasn’t. There were days when I needed to have three or four naps throughout the day and there were days when I was awake from morning to night. I just kept thinking, if I feel this bad, imagine how the cancer must be feeling. Treatment is awful but they know it works and if chemo was what was going to kill any cancer left inside of my body then sign me up.

4. Is breast cancer genetic in your family? If not, how were doctors able to explain why you were diagnosed with it at such a young age? 

Breast cancer is not genetic in my family. My tumour was removed and then tested for three things (the same three things that all breast cancer tissue is tested for); estrogen, progesterone, and Her-2. My tumour ended up being estrogen positive, meaning it was estrogen that was causing my tumour to grow. I am currently on a drug called Tamoxifen which is a form of hormone replacement therapy that I started after chemo ended and I will need to take it for the next five years.

The ‘why’ of my diagnosis wasn’t really focused on, my team of doctors seemed to focus on getting rid of the cancer and focus on the necessary treatment. I’ve spoken to other cancer patients who have said the same thing, it doesn’t seem to matter why you have cancer, it just matters that we get rid of it.

5. What helped you recover during and after treatment?

There are three things that helped me with treatment.

The first thing that I recommend to everyone going through treatment is water. Drink as much water as possible, especially during treatment. You are having poison put through your veins and the best way to cleanse your body is by drinking as much water as possible.

“The first thing that I recommend to everyone going through treatment is water. Drink as much water as possible, especially during treatment.”

The second is sleep. It is amazing how tired you can get from chemo. You need to sleep as much as possible. When you get tired, your body is telling you to sleep and it is your job to listen to it.

The last thing, but certainly the most important, was my family and friends. When you have cancer, everyone around you feels so helpless so when they can do something to help (do your laundry, cook some meals, paint your nails, etc.) it not only helps you out but it lets them help in an otherwise helpless situation.

So to summarize, drink lots of water, stay rested, and surround yourself with family and friends.

6. Were you able to meet other survivors your age and how important is the role of support during treatment?

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought I was alone (you just don’t hear about women in their twenties having breast cancer). But, after 3 months, I started writing a blog for facingcancer.ca and found out about two other women only a couple of years older than me who had been diagnosed with breast cancer too. I have since met a handful of women who have had breast cancer in their twenties and thirties. You never hear about it but unfortunately, breast cancer has become a reality for many young women.

“Chemo can cause your mind to play some pretty mean tricks on you.”

The term ‘support’ carries a variety of meanings. I never went to a support group but had incredible support from my family and friends. To be honest, I think I would still be hiding under the covers with the lights turned off if it wasn’t for my support system. Chemo can cause your mind to play some pretty mean tricks on you; the psychological part of treatment is overwhelming and I was not prepared for it at all. I was reminded by one family member that it would all be a memory one day soon. I just kept reminding myself of that after every treatment and now it IS just a memory. Support is essential during treatment!

7. Did you wear a wig and why did you choose to do so?

I purchased a wig before my hair fell out. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to have it just in case there were days when I wanted to have hair but I never once wore it. I went through chemo in the middle of summer and it was just too hot. And, although I really liked the wig, I was confident enough not to wear one, so why suffer with the heat?

I wore my bald head around like a badge of honour. I wanted people to know that just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I am stuck in bed for the duration of treatment. I can go to the grocery store, take public transit, and go out for dinner just like every one else.

8. Would you like to share any experiences with wearing a wig?

I had a bright pink wig that I got within a few weeks of being diagnosed. I love the colour pink and it also happens to the colour of the breast cancer ribbon. Anyway, I wore the wig three time. The first time was at a benefit dance that my friends threw for me. By the end of the night, I had taken it off because it was so hot and so many of my friends tried it on throughout the night. It was nice to watch other people wear it because it seemed to bring everyone together that night. The second time was at a wedding. At that point in my treatment, I really stood out because I was completely bald so because I was going to stand out anyway, I might as well try to look good. I wore the pink wig throughout the ceremony, dinner and only took it off near the end of the dance. Lastly, I wore the wig to my final chemo appointment. Because I had worn it on two other joyous nights, why not wear it to my last chemo treatment too? I’m glad I did because all of my pictures from my last treatment day are of me with hair (even if it was bright pink).

9. How has breast cancer changed your outlook on life? 

“I am still planning for the future however I think I’ve started living for the present which is something that I didn’t necessarily do prior my diagnosis.”

Well, at the cost of sounding too cliché, I think I have realized that life is so precious and that we are only on the earth for a finite number of years. I try to keep in mind that if today was the day I was supposed to die, that I made yesterday worth living. In other words, I am trying to enjoy the day to day small victories and the simple pleasantries in life. I am also trying not to pass up any opportunity that will make me a better person. I am still planning for the future however I think I’ve started living for the present which is something that I didn’t necessarily do prior my diagnosis. I was so worried about the next week, next month, and next year instead of focusing on right now. Cancer has taught me that there may not be a next week so make this week worth living.

10. Do you have any tips or advice for other breast cancer patients your age about to undergo the same thing?

Well, if I could tell a young woman who was just diagnosed anything it would be;

  • You’re not alone, there are other young women with breast cancer who understand what you are going through.
  • Don’t try to control what you can’t control. Cancer and treatment affect our body image, fertility, our hormones, our hair, etc. and instead of trying to control that, try to control your reaction to it. Surround yourself with good people and they will help you cope with the devastation.
  • Allow yourself to have bad days. I don’t think anyone can get through a cancer diagnosis without some tears, and some anger, and some frustration but what I always said was, I have to go through this whether I want to or not so I might as well try to make it easier on myself by putting a smile on my face. I didn’t have very much control over anything once I was diagnosed with cancer so if my attitude is one of the few things I do have control over then I’m going to try to stay positive for as much of this journey as possible
  • You have to learn to excuse other people sometimes because they aren’t aware of what they are saying. If someone says “Oh, it’s just hair, it will grow back” (which I was told many times), they are trying to make you feel better; what I wanted to say was “Oh, so you’re going to cut your hair off with me then?”. Many people have told me about someone close to them who has died from cancer while I was going through treatment as well. Many times people are trying to relate and instead end up offending you.
  • Finally, although it may feel like cancer has become your life right now, remember that you are more than your diagnosis and you are more than cancer. Although your cancer diagnosis stays with you forever, a lot of this will be a memory one day.
* BONUS QUESTION (FOR THE GUYS) *
During the interview, we found out that Katie has a very supportive boyfriend who’s been by her side throughout her journey of overcoming the disease. Oftentimes, breast cancer awareness focuses on the woman but it’s also important to show how men react when their loved ones are growing through this. We asked Katie the following question to help any man reading this gain some insight into how they can help their partner going through a similar experience:
How did your boyfriend react? How important was his role and what did he do to make you feel better?

My boyfriend is a pretty incredible man. From the day of diagnosis, he has been by my side and never once said he didn’t want to do this anymore or threatened to leave me. He was scared for me in the beginning but once we understood what needed to be done, we became a team. Only six days after my diagnosis, I came home and there was a gift bag on the kitchen table. It was a gift from him to me. I opened it and inside was a journal. He wanted me to write everything I couldn’t tell him in this journal and he promised never to read it. He assured me that he was always there for me, but if there was anything I couldn’t tell him, I could now write it down in this journal. I think if it wasn’t for him, I would have given up a long time ago. He was my strength when I was too weak.

All through treatment he was doing anything he could or that I asked him to to make me feel more comfortable. He came home early from work when I was sick, he took me to every doctor’s appointment and came to every one of my treatments. I didn’t have a choice in having cancer so I had to deal with it but he had a choice and he chose to stick by my side and be my strongest support through the hardest time of my life. He loved me with two breasts and now loves me with one. I actually think we are now closer than we were before I was diagnosed.

Click on the image to visit Katie's blog.

We’d like thank Katie for sharing her experience with us. Be sure to check her blog and daily posts on “The Bald and The Beautiful“.