The Power of a Pink Pom-Pom

Funny how life has a way of connecting complete strangers and transforming this connection into so much more! A few days following her guest talk at the Rose of Hope luncheon supporting the Norma Pfreim Cancer Center in Fairefield, Connecticut, One Wig Stand’s founder and managing director Loryne Atoui-Laham had the chance to bump into Alexandra Wallace-Currie of The Pink Pom-Pom Project at a local design fair (who it turned out had been at the luncheon a few days earlier and heard about our organization). The name alone is enough to draw you in, but wait till you hear how this charity is empowering (and keeping stylishly cozy) cancer patients within Fairfield and beyond:

  1. What inspired you to start “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and where did the catchy name originate from?

I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in October 2010 in London, UK. After the initial shock, horror and reality of my situation, I had to be a realist and get back to being a Mommy first. My kids were young and did not understand, let alone would not stand for mommy sitting or laying around the house. As cancer treatment goes, my chemotherapy sessions quickly started after surgery in November. My hair began to fall out in clumps everywhere I went: in the mall, in the shower – it was disheartening however, I had my three kids to look forward to, especially their beautiful smiles! Chemotherapy is not doubt horrible and sitting alone in the sessions is even worse. I am an eternal optimist and always try the find the good in every situation. So I would walk around the clinic trying to talk to people, but none were interested. I was so bored even catching up on sleep was boring! So I started to blog and knit hats and scarves for other cancer survivors.

One chilly afternoon in London and in my cozy room after chemo, I began to shiver. Women do not realize when your hair is gone, life can be freezing! So I started knitting a hat for myself.

“The Pink Pom-Pom Project” was named after I had knitted my own ‘floppy cancer hat’ and popped a huge pink pom-pom on top. My girls came into the room and cheered when they saw it. I asked if they would like to learn how to knit to help make hats and scarves for others. They both agreed and asked if we could call it “The Pink Pom-Pom”, I added the “Project” and three weeks later we were applying for a trademark!

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

I’ll say the PPPP came in the nick of time because my cancer treatment was a rough one. I had been hospitalized four separate times, other than surgeries even on Christmas morning and Valentine’s Day! We started the PPPP in London and we moved to the United States in December 2011. I opened my first physical shop in February 2012 and started our very first “Stitch & B*tch” group soon-after. These sessions take place every week on Monday and Thursdays. We try to help every woman we can in any way during cancer treatment and afterwards by providing art classes as a means of emotional therapy. In two and half years, we have connected with seven different organizations through Fairfield County and work with cancer survivors and inner-city youth. We teach arts and crafts and life skills, i.e. knitting and sewing to children ages 7 years+.

  1. What are the benefits of crafting for patients undergoing cancer treatment, or for cancer survivors, and what’s it like at one of your “Stitch & B*tch” groups?

When I was undergoing treatment – and I had mentioned before how boring chemotherapy can be – arts and crafts got my mind off my current situation. It helped me escape into a world of creativity.

xx

Everyone hard at work during a stitching session. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

It was especially fun because between chemo sessions I would hold “Stitch & B*tch” parties at my home. We spread to crafting because a lot of people did not know how to knit. And I always provide instruction at all group sessions in case any one wants to learn, or has any issues. “Stich & B*tch* is fun and productive. We’ve also started introducing other projects, like lavender sachets as sleep aids and small quilts.

When women in need get together, it’s amazing how powerful just talking and sharing can be. Especially to someone who may have trouble expressing themselves or who is completely overwhelmed with fear by this disease.

  1. Your shop, “A Little Square” in Fairfield, plays a direct role in helping support “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Where do these two ventures overlap and how are they different?

”A Little Square” was started in London when I arrived pregnant with my second child. It was first a hobby. I would import hand-painted baby clothing and accessories by my twin sister, Shepherd. There were no cute preppy Americana gifts and baby stuff that was affordable for everyone to enjoy. Everything was too expensive, especially when you have to purchase ten gifts for all your new mommy friends! “A Little Square” has been in business since 2005 and was mainly a home-run/trunk show business for the first year. It then expanded to gift shows and became known as the Americana Chic Gift store – apparently I found a niche and it was fun while it lasted!

Now “A Little Square” serves an even bigger and better purpose. It currently underwrites “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and provides supplies, materials, equipment, and instruction to the groups we work with all for free.

The PPPP prides itself on providing the same classes to under-privileged children. One of its many mottos is ‘Why take a child to K-Mart when you can take them all to Coco Chanel’ – the playing fields should be the same!

When you shop at “A Little Square” you are directly giving back to the local community. It’s a ying-and-yang kind of charity!

  1. The headscarves you make are not only beautiful with uplifting colors, but also very practical and comfy. How did you draw on your own experience to design them and what other items have you designed for patients?

I grew up in the 70’s and my mother’s hair started thinning after having six kids. So she made this amazing scarf that she would wear almost every day of the summer.

The design of our scarf is completely based off her own design with extra padding in front to give the illusion of ‘hair’ for patients. The crown part is slightly poofier too because when you are undergoing Chemotherapy, although you may be cold or hot, the skin on your head must breathe.

Because in spring it’s too hot to wear hats and beanies, we patterned our scarf in bright-colored fabrics designed by very talented textile designers, like Amy Butler, Heather Bailey, Kaffee Fassett and many more. PPPPImage_CraftSession1 In terms of designing other products, we make other things like Lavender Sachets, Prayer Shawls, Hats and Scarves, PPPP Pillows and now, thin Cotton Quilts for Chemotherapy.

  1. How many women do you work with/have you worked with on making these headscarves (and other products for patients) and what are some of the reactions of the patients who’ve received these lovingly-made gifts?

I would say from the time we started The PPPP crafting parties in 2011, easily 400+ people. We not only work with women undergoing treatment, but their families participate as well. We also work with The Girl Scouts of CT. We schedule GS Troops, many groups come between 13-20 kids, and they make Lavender Sachets for cancer survivors [to aid in sleep]. We also ask the children from our community centers to help make the Lavender Sachets.

My favorite part is the reactions from everyone involved. From the moment we start a project, I explain to groups about our charity and why they come together. When everyone understands the project, the excitement builds and goods get made faster! It’s really sweet.

We have a program called The Volunteer Of The Year (V.O.T.Y.) Quilt, which is made exclusively by cancer survivors for a dedicated volunteer in a cancer clinic. Their reactions are priceless because they never expect anything back!

PPPPImage_StitchSession2

Volunteers hard at work knitting to support cancer patients. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

  1. You founded “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” while living in London and now you’ve expanded your reach to the U.S.A. Where do you see the charity heading next and what exciting projects can we expect in the future?

Well, that is a good question!

Because 1 in 3 will get cancer in the US, it is imperative we reach out into other communities and establish the PPPP as an optional therapy tool. I have always thought franchising was a possibility. I have been asked by other hospitals to come and share, that is on the agenda!

However, for the remainder of 2015, we have a very exciting project that will take The PPPP into a whole new direction. We are sponsoring Art Rooms within the inner-city youth community centers we teach at. Our very first Art Room will be at The Cardinal Shehan Center in Bridgeport. We will be redesigning their space, providing new options for art, especially offering Sewing Classes as an important life skill. Their current room is a little out-dated and needs a new bright look to encourage creativity. We are really looking forward to it!

  1. “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” donated more than 25 headscarves to our organization last month (June 2015) to be passed on to patients in Lebanon. We are beyond touched by this very kind and generous gesture. What message do you hope to send across to the patients who’ll be receiving them?
Our wig stand modeling the beautiful headscarves donated to our patients by The Pink Pom-Pom Project. Doesn't she look fabulous? Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Our wig stand modeling the gorgeous headscarves donated to our patients by “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Doesn’t she look fabulous? Photographs by: Sally Mansour

There was an angel in my mist after I was diagnosed. After the initial diagnosis, I was in shock but I did not want to strike fear in anyone else. I could not walk, my legs would not support me. I was devastated and could not see the future, I could not see my life, I could not see my children. While I waited for the final results, a young woman walked in to the room I was waiting in. She was not a counselor or a Doctor: she was a Secretary in the Accounting Department. She said these two magical words to me “Six Years”. For a moment, I did not understand what she said. I assumed after diagnosis I was headed for the crematorium: life was over for me.

“Six Years I have survived from Stage 3 Breast Cancer. I am 27-years-old and know I have a future ahead of me,” she said. “You can do this my friend.”

So I stood up, wiped my face and tears away and said she was right. The fear subsided for the moment and I walked out of the clinic with a whole new perspective on life.

That young woman saved my life. Cancer saved my life as I watched the days drift away with frivolous activities that meant nothing to me or anyone else. Now I look at everything and live every day to the fullest. I pay it forward by working with people who need help.

This is my therapy and I hope you can help someone else in their journey back to health. others in their journey back to health. I would encourage women to make things for newly-diagnosed women because it would really help lift them up during this phase. Thank you and God Bless!

We’d like to take this chance to thank Alexandra, her team and everyone who’s worked on the headscarves through The Pink Pom-Pom Project for donating these gorgeous headscarves to our organization. The patients that have started receiving them as a result of this kind gesture absolutely love them!

Find out more about The Pink Pom-Pom Project:

* Feeling inspired to do something to help patients here too, but don’t know what yet? Or maybe you already have an idea but don’t know how to make it a reality? Get in touch with us and we’ll find a way!

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Blossom زهري : Art Therapy Workshops

ARE YOU A BREAST CANCER PATIENTS OR SURVIVOR?

Give yourself a chance to RELAX, REFLECT and RECONNECT with yourself (and others) through art. Blossom_Instagram “I never imagined the amount of information that would come out of a small drawing on paper. It was amazing how much did come out of that.. I was given insight that I wasn’t aware of, which gave me a sense of empowerment, and then I was able to make the decision that I wanted to from that.” – Patricia, Breast Cancer Patient (Source)


Artichoke Studio and One Wig Stand invite you to take part in a unique art therapy workshop to delve deeper into matters of importance to you and reshape your cancer experience.

“Art Therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the Art Therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” – American Art Therapy Association, 2015

Through art-making and intimate group discussions, the workshop aims to help each participant express her emotions, and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of herself. In a playful and nonjudgmental environment, important issues will be tackled through different artistic mediums (such as drawings, collage, clay, etc.) over a course of 8 sessions.

The workshop will provide you an opportunity to:

  • Relax, play and get distracted from any pain you may feel.
  • Express any emotions that may be difficult to verbalize.
  • Build your self-esteem and strengthen your body image.
  • Cope better with stress, grief, fear, anxiety and depression.
  • Become more self-aware of your emotions and needs.
  • Communicate and interact more effectively with your family and surroundings.
  • Connect with others who are going through or have been through a similar experience and find comfort, freedom and hope through this support network.

Sessions will be lead by Myra Saad – M.A. in Art Therapy & Mental Health Counseling. No prior experience in art is required to take part in, or benefit from, art therapy. Confidentiality is highly respected.


WORKSHOP DETAILS The workshop will start in March and will take place once per week over 8 weeks.

  • Time: TUES: 6:30pm – 9pm OR FRI: 9:30am – 12pm (to be set based on majority preference)
  • Location: Artichoke Studio, Sin el-Fil
  • Fee: $145 for 8 sessions (includes cost of art materials)

REGISTRATION

Fill-in the following online registration form: http://goo.gl/forms/gQo2joKLyT OR download it (from here) and send it to us on: blossom.art.therapy@gmail.com Kindly note that places are limited!

Deadline for Registrations: Friday March 6, 2015


ABOUT US ARTICHOKE STUDIO is committed to providing art therapy for individuals, groups and communities seeking mental health and self-development, based on high professional and ethical standards. www.artichokestudio.org

ONE WIG STAND is a breast cancer awareness and support non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness among young women through its engaging campaigns and targeted support programs for patients and their families. www.onewigstand.org


For more information, please contact: 03-545281 or 79-158471

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“.

Lara’s Story

We had a chance to meet Lara Safar at the Bras for a Cause ME  fashion show in Dubai where she openly shared her inspirational story of overcoming the disease to all our guests, starting with the following simple yet very powerful introduction:

Two years ago, this is probably how I would have introduced myself: “Hi everyone, my name is Lara. I’m Lebanese. I’m 25-years-old and I work in advertising”. Today I say: “Hi everyone, my name is Lara. I’m a twenty-seven year-old breast cancer survivor.”

“Twenty-seven-year-old” and “survivor” in one sentence is not something you hear every day, but Lara has actively proven (and continues to do so) the importance of early detection – no matter how old you are. We took a few minutes to get to know this fascinating young woman a little bit better to spread her important message to all women across the Middle East:

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

I sensed a lump in one of my breasts but kind of ignored it at the beginning as I didn’t think it was anything abnormal. One day I could sense it, the next day I couldn’t. I thought it was in my head and that I was being paranoid until one day at the beach when a friend of mine felt it and encouraged me to get a doctor’s appointment (which I did). After that, I did some tests, including an ecography and a mammography before the doctor announced the news to me.

2. What was your first thought upon hearing the diagnosis and what was treatment like? 

I was shocked when I first found out because I was not expecting it. Given that I was only 25 years old at the time and that I didn’t have any family history, it came as a surprise for me.

My first reaction was that this is not possible; I didn’t believe it.

I thought the doctor was wrong until I did more tests and got checked by other doctors who also confirmed that I had attained stage 2 breast cancer.

The treatment varies case by case. Given my age and the stage of my cancer, I had to undergo chemotherapy for almost 1 year and 3 months. It was 1 session every 3 weeks. I also did a surgery whereby the tumor was removed from my breast, followed by daily radiotherapy treatment for almost 5 weeks.

3. 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?  

No one from my family had been attained by breast cancer and it’s still a question mark as to how I was diagnosed with it at such a young age. No science so far has been able to determine the reasons behind breast cancer in general. It is said that the probability of breast cancer increases with age and if there’s a family history, but people tend to think that they can only be attained by it for those reasons – which is a total misconception. My case is the proof of that. It’s very important that people correct their conception with regards to this matter.

Stages of Recovery: Before, During and After (left-to-right) Photos courtesy of Lara

4. What helped you recover during and after treatment? 

Of course, what helped me was the support of my family, in spite of this being very hard on them. They never showed me that they were in pain and always kept a hopeful attitude with a smile on their faces. My friends were also always there for me and I was constantly surrounded by the people I love. Most and foremost, having an optimistic spirit was the key to surviving this episode.

5. Were you able to meet other survivors your age and how important is the support of others who’ve gone through the same thing? 

I haven’t met many people who were attained by breast cancer at quite the young age like I have – only 1 as a matter of fact and I met her at the hospital. She had discovered it after I had already started my treatment so my case was more advanced than hers at the time we met. She was still at the beginning of her treatment so I found myself helping her by telling her what to expect and the different stages she’d have to go through.

6. Did you wear a wig during treatment, and if so, why did you chose to do so? If not, what helped you to make such a bold decision? 

Before I started chemotherapy I had very long hair, which I loved. As soon as my hair started to fall, I went to a hair salon specialized in making wigs from your own hair. They cut my hair and used it to make the wig, but I never wore it. I felt as if I would be lying to myself as well as to others. It wasn’t right and it didn’t look nice or natural to me. So instead I resorted to wearing scarves which felt much more comfortable. I started matching them with my outfits and would constantly received compliments on them.

Given that I never wore my wig, my friends and family helped themselves to it instead. It was very funny seeing them in a new hairstyle – especially the boys!

Lara’s fabulous scarf style during treatment. Photos courtesy of Lara

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

Many people say that after rough experiences, their perception of life changes. To be very honest with you, that has not been the case with me. Like I mentioned at the Bras for a Cause event, I’m still the same person. I still like the same things and still have the same friends. Nothing has changed really except that maybe now I try to do more of the things I like to do (like eating out, traveling, etc…) and avoid doing the things that I don’t like doing (like exercising!). But that’s not because I think that life is too short; far from that! Rather it’s because I now feel that there’s no point in doing things that don’t matter to you.

8. What tips or advice would you like to give for other Middle Eastern breast cancer patients about to undergo the same thing? 

That there is no point in being sad or asking questions like “why me?” as this will not make the cancer go away. My advice would be to look at the bright side and look at all the good things that will come out of this experience as they’re countless.

Another important thing to bear in mind is to find the best doctors as they will give you the confidence you need and will provide you with the best treatment possible to increase your chances of surviving.

Lastly, dont spend too much time on the internet looking for answers. Most of the times they’re exaggerated and incorrect. Ask questions to the right people (i.e. doctors).

9. You’ve been very open about your experience, which isn’t very common in the region. What boosted you to do so and how has the public responded to your story? Do you find talking about your experience difficult? 

When I survived, I took a pledge to start raising awareness about early detection because I want other women to be able to survive this like I did – and early detection is key for that. More so, I believe there is no shame in being  a cancer survivor. On the contrary; after this experience, people have so much more admiration, respect and love towards me. So why to not talk about it, especially when it can help others and make a difference?

Lara sharing her story at the Bras for a Cause fashion show in Dubai (October 2011)

The public has been quite responsive to my story. I’ve done a lot of media interviews and have spoken at a couple of events. Following those experiences, I now get stopped by random people who applaud my courage and thank me for opening their eyes by sharing my story. I really hope that my message has resonated with others and that women will do regular check-ups religiously!

10. What did you think of the Bras for a Cause fashion show event [that you were also a guest speaker at]? What kind of campaigns would you like to see more of in the region? 

This is a brilliant event because although the core of it is breast cancer awareness, it was surrounded by other fun activities which encouraged people to attend and take part. If the event had been more focussed towards the cause and the medical side of it, then it probably wouldn’t have captured as much attention.

I really hope that more campaigns will take place in the region, and not just in October (breast cancer awareness month) but rather all year long.

Safe & Sound‘s activities, such as their walk-a-thon, annual survivor fashion show, book sale, and, most importantly, the 5,000 free mammography vouchers they give away to women who can’t afford to get checked are also good examples.

Lara celebrates reaching the “Finish Line” at the end of her treatment. Photo courtesy of Lara

Thank you Lara for taking the time to share your story with us. You’re a true inspiration and we applaud your commitment to spreading your message of breast cancer awareness. We wish you the best of luck in all you do!

UPDATE: Read the follow-up interview with Lara we conducted two years after this post here.

“Good Morning Doctor. I have Cancer.”

Maha didn’t shed a single tear throughout her Breast Cancer treatment. Besides being a woman with tremendous strength of mind over matter, she was also always surrounded by loved ones and maybe the reality of what she was going through didn’t effect her as much as would be expected. When she finally launched her book “رحلة مواجهة” (“Journey of Confrontations” in English) in early 2011 to a crowd of more than 550 persons, she was so moved by the public’s overwhelming support and for having achieved this goal of getting her story out, that tears this time were inevitable.

Maha, who was diagnosed in 1993 with Breast Cancer, knew from the very instant she felt a hummus-sized lump that this was cancer. After all, cancer was no stranger to her family, having inflicted both her parents and other close relatives.

She boldly walked into her doctor’s office the next day and declared “Good Morning Doctor. I have cancer.” I don’t know how many women would say that, and even more than that, who’d boldly look at the disease straight in the face this way. Her initiative to get to the point from the start also accompanied her treatment. “I want to live. I want to fight it!” she told me – a determined attitude that has been accompanying her since day one of her journey.

One of the things that helped her cope, and which she recommends to all other patients that have the opportunity, is to “take the initiative to speed things up”. Need to take an exam? Done, next. Doctor confirms results? Done, next. Start chemotherapy? Done, next.. and so on. “I was on a mission and was following it up” she said, stressing on the importance of not letting the mind wander either.

Keeping this attitude is not easy though, especially when battling an aggressive type of cancer that has not completely left her body yet. “I’m hanging on to life.. The worst scenario is death, but I keep telling myself: I’m not going to die of cancer. I’ll probably die of something else..”

The worst scenario is death, but I keep telling myself: I’m not going to die of cancer. I’ll probably die of something else..

Education and literature also undoubtedly played a big role during her treatment too, giving her insight into her options when it came to making big decisions regarding the disease. She was reading “till [she] dropped!” books about diet, radiation, chemotherapy and anything to do with Breast Cancer. Even until today, Maha will read anything on the topic. “It’s become almost a hobby for me.. I’m always greedy for literature.”

Alongside her thirst for knowledge, Maha attributes the role of faith, positive thinking, work, the people surrounding her and her determination to live as factors that have helped her deal with the disease. “I feel God is with me.. Cancer is going to give up on me.”

Her advice for everyone, not just breast cancer patients, is not to take things for granted. “I don’t take my health for granted.. We all take too many things for granted. We need to wake up! Instead of buying a $3,000 pair of shoes, buy a pair for $200 and do something meaningful with the rest. Spend even as little as one hour a week in the hospital with patients.. Put a smile on someone’s face. People unfortunately don’t realize this until it’s too late.”

If that doesn’t inspire you to rethink your life, I don’t know what will. Having had a chance to sit with Maha and discuss her experience so intimately still affects me, even two months after I interviewed her. Not only has she published the first and only personal recount of a breast cancer patients’ experience in the Middle East, but she continually finds ways to spread awareness and positive thinking towards other patients. As Laura Bush herself said after the book launch, “Maha is the woman who finally broke the silence and taboo.”

And she certainly did. At her book launch and signing earlier this year Maha describes “I just felt so proud of myself.. I felt that me and all these patients, we have the same language.” She came to realize that breast cancer patients in the region are hungry to find out more about the disease and need more books like this, written with them in mind.

“I made this book for breast cancer patients. I insisted on a writing style that wouldn’t get the patient lost.” Her book, describing a very personal recount of her experience from diagnosis in 1993 until now, is her journey – a journey of confrontation that one can’t help but admire and respect Maha even more for. Her book is distributed free-of-charge to different breast cancer organizations in Jordan with proceeds from sales elsewhere going towards the King Hussein Cancer Foundation.

I’m not considered a survivor. I haven’t survived it yet but will keep fighting..

She clarifies, however, when people and organizations refer to her as a survivor, “I’m not considered a survivor. I haven’t survived it yet but will keep fighting.. Admist everything, I’m still here”

Maha has all our support and best wishes as she continues her confrontation. We hope to have her in Beirut soon to talk more about her book and break the taboo here where it’s also much-needed.

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Read more about her book “رحلة مواجهة” (soon to be published in English):

Maha Kalaji signs copies of her book “Journey of Confrontations”

Maha Kalaji Donates Proceeds of her Book “Journey of Confrontations” to the King Hussein Cancer Foundation