To my port:

Today marks the end of an era for me.

A little over a year and a half ago, I was told I needed to insert an IV, or central line, through the skin of my chest, in order for my chemotherapy drugs to flow through my veins with ease. I have always had thin veins which would easily collapse and would be hard to find, and because of this I was advised that the port would make the process of chemo a less painful one for me.  

On October 25th, 2018 at 7:30 am I was on the operating room being sedated to get my port and begin my first session of chemotherapy straight after. That weekend is quite unforgettable to me, for obvious reasons. Yet, it also became memorable because I had a rare complication from my port insertion, after a day or two of the procedure, I started to feel shortness of breath, palpitations and a general uneasiness. As I visited the hospital a full 3 days after the procedure, complaining of not being able to breathe well, an X-ray revealed that my right lung had completely collapsed as it had been punctured during the port insertion. I had to undergo another two procedures to re-expand my lung, as well as 11 x-rays, 1 CT scan and 12 nights in the hospital.

Needless to say, my relationship with my port did not start well. It caused me a lot of pain and discomfort at the beginning. It was this thing sticking out of my chest that made me very self-conscious and consistently afraid of it coming out of place and causing me any more pain. I was already dealing with so much, and those 12 nights in the hospital were an awakening. This was going to be my life now, in and out of hospitals consistently with silent threats looming before treatment had even begun. My pain tolerance was being tested from procedure to procedure, at that point with a catheter inside me (the port), a small valve on my chest and another catheter through my right rib in the many attempts to get my lung back to normal.

It was a frustrating time. I was afraid and felt I was being treated so unjustly by life. I didn’t only have to deal with the cancer treatment, and a recent recovery from my breast mastectomy a mere one month earlier, but also, I was being asked by life to remain patient as more obstacles were appearing in my path. Obstacles, like the sudden collapse of my lung, a delay in my treatment, and an enormous fight with the hospital over who to blame for this complication which I was unaware could even happen.

Amidst the pain and as my hair began to slowly fall, during those 12 days there was always someone to hold my hand. I had an incredible group of friends, and they created a rotating schedule to ensure there will always be someone holding my hand in each one of those 12 days (and the many months of treatment to follow). It was because of them that the most painful moment of my life also became the most enlightening. I was surrounded by love, support and understanding from my friends and family and it was their light that carried me through the darkness.

My port caused me a lot of pain, and yet, it was because of it that I realized how much genuine love I have around me. It reminded me that I was worthy of love and that I wasn’t being punished. It revealed and reassured me that I had chosen the right people to spend my time with and trust my life with. It also saved me from what could have been a very painful 6-month chemo treatment with consistently collapsed veins.

Today I sat for a 45-minute surgery to get this little catheter, that had been a part of me, removed. It was the one small thing standing between me and the end of my cancer journey. Today, I am cancer free. I am port free. I am treatment free. I am so grateful that I can put all of it behind me. I am so grateful to God and life to be alive, healthy and thriving.

To mark the end of this era in my life, I wanted to list out the people I am grateful to and grateful for and who have had a huge impact in my life and have helped me heal, in different ways:

Dr. Fadi Mikhail, Dr. Annett Al Hamadi & Dr. Yasser Khattab at Mediclinic City Hospital as well as the team of incredibly kind nurses: Anette, Gladys, Roulette and Sini.

Dr. Lina & Dr. Bassit & Dr. Omaria at Dubai Hospital as well as the team of powerful and incredible nurses: Shila Sajjan, Maria Shyla, Vinu, Dayana, Bandu, May and Aida.

My mom, my dad (rest in eternal power and peace) and my brother Samy who flew within a week of my diagnosis to be with me for 3 months. My niece Sophia for giving me strength. My cousin/sister Marcela for being my backbone, as always.

Kickass survivor Maria Manzoor for being my guide. Thank you.

My chosen family and treatment companions: Rola, Angelika, Rehana, Maya, Rawan, Bruno, Nada, Butheina, Noor, Mel, Leila, Sareh, Azza, Soroor, Yousra, Cesar, Zamin, Pilar, Elizabeth, Alia, Tina, Nur.

I am truly grateful to so many loving people who helped me and had an impact on me through a gesture of kindness, love and support. There are too many to list (how lucky am I!!), but you all know who you are. Thank you for feeding me, being there for me, sending me messages of support, listening to me, guiding me and giving me a hug when I needed it.

Thank you, thank you, a million times thank you. May God multiply in blessings the kindness and love you all gave me.

Here’s to a new era 🙂

Oh, and fuck cancer.

The “new normal”

Generally, I am not afraid to be vulnerable. Lately, however, I have been afraid to open a new page to start writing, afraid of what will come out from my scattered brain.  

I have been feeling slightly overwhelmed from the pressure of consistently feeling like I have to be inspiring. As if I wasn’t allowed to break down and feel pain. As if having beat cancer with a little bit of grace and a lot of mental strength was an award I had to always live up to. The PTSD is a little real though. A lot of things remind me of how hurt I was when I was diagnosed, or the physical pain I felt throughout chemo, of how the lack of self-confidence pulled me down. The mental battle was always there. I was consistently fighting against my own thoughts and my own feelings. Add to that a lack of intimacy and you got a recipe for a very lonely process.

It’s definitely not easy to shift back to what this new post-cancer normal has become. It’s quite a strange phase. For me it has been this incredible desire to do everything, to step outside my comfort zone – sometimes a little too far – out of fear that my life could once again take a flip back to uncertainty and illness. After all the process of treatment was over, and once I felt somewhat recovered, I told myself that I wanted to go to sleep every night thinking that if everything is to be taken away, I’d have no regrets. It’s not very sustainable though, that’s for sure. We are always told to live in the present, but the reality is that thinking about that idealistic, hypothetical future is what keeps us in check. This mindset, however, has also brought a lot of beauty into my life. It has made me appreciate the most basic privileges I get to enjoy. The first one, of course, being my health. I try to always remind myself that at some point in time, not too long ago, I couldn’t even get out of bed – and that definitely puts any situation back in a more positive perspective. It’s a rollercoaster though, trauma comes laced with so much fear that it becomes easy to lose focus.

I have said before that I felt like the process of going through cancer has made feel reborn. This is absolutely true. However, I am still discovering what this new version of me is. One thing has definitely become clear, I am not willing to settle for mediocre experiences. I am committed to live – whatever that means, I am still figuring it out – and most importantly, I am committed to me. In spite of that, sometimes reality feels quite heavy… it’s been a struggle to find safety in my own body and to let go of the panic that comes through when I think of the statistical possibility of my cells betraying me one more time. I am aware that I cannot let that stop me from living, but I also can’t let it steer me away from finding a purpose to satisfy my soul.

Cancer may leave our bodies, exterminated by the toxins pumped into our veins, but does it ever really leave our minds?

Here I’m hoping that it’s just a matter of time, or maybe it’s a matter of sitting with that fear, understand it and choose every day to overcome it. I’m still learning to cope. Today marks exactly one year since I walked out of the hospital after a long 12-day stay after my lung collapsed during my port insertion surgery – and first chemo session. I was feeling inexplicably sensitive today, and I guess is because the body doesn’t forget trauma, even if our mind can sweep it under a metaphorical mental rug and pretend life is peachy. It’s still a matter of perspective: one year ago I had three surgical procedures in 15 days and, in comparison, this week I got to walk a runway at a fashion show, dance salsa and squat 40 kilos at the gym. And with that thought, here I am hoping life continues to be kind <3.

One year after my mastectomy

One year ago I woke up at 6 am with ugly butterflies in my stomach. One year ago I prayed for strength, and for the anesthesia to work, as I was driven to the hospital. One year ago my cancerous tumor was removed, alongside the rest of my right breast: tissue, muscle, nerve endings. One year ago I had my implant put in during a 4 hour surgery.

In the company of my brother and closest of friends, I waited patiently in the hospital room to be prepped for my surgery. My mastectomy was the second surgery I have ever had, and obviously the most traumatic. I was strangely calm. I had done a lot of spiritual work before my surgery- therapy, energy healing sessions, sound healing sessions, guided meditations – all with the intention of gathering all the strength inside me to accept my fate, to grief my loss, and to fight whatever was to come. I was afraid though. I was afraid of waking up to a horrible scar. I was afraid of the pain. I was afraid of something going wrong during surgery. I was afraid that they would find the cancer had spread beyond my breast. There was so much to be afraid of at that moment. Luckily, I was with my people, with those who know that a dark joke about getting big double d size titties would probably calm my nerves. I was surrounded by people who told me they loved me and that I was fierce and that it will be fine because they’ll be there when I come out.

In the operating room, my plastic surgeon did my final measures and markings. My breast surgeon held my hand as she made jokes to make me laugh as the anesthesia went through my veins. I felt safe. I am so grateful to Dr. Anett for making me feel safe. I woke up 5 hours later, I could not move my right arm – my entire breast was removed, an implant put in and two of my armpit lymph nodes were removed in order to test them for cancer cells. I was in pain, dazed and confused. As I wheeled into the room and I saw my brother and my best friends I smiled.

I had a thick bandage across my chest, but my breasts were not covered. When I managed to go to the bathroom, I thought I would be terrified to see the big vertical scar from the bottom edge of my nipple to the bottom of my new implanted breast. I was not. Sure, the implant looked stiff and a little funny, but I was grateful to have had the cancer removed and to still have something there. “It could have been worse” – I remember thinking that to myself. I was in the hospital for 3 days, during that time my friends bathed me, helped me eat, helped me with my physiotherapy, entertained me, and showered me with so much love.

Now, one year on, I have found confidence in my new breast. It was definitely not easy to see your breasts completely uneven, particularly because I often did not really wear bras but a lot of nipple stickers and found it so comfortable. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t really have my breasts without any “support” as it is only by bringing my left (natural) breast up, that they look somewhat “leveled.” Regardless, of whether or not anyone else would find them ugly, I still felt beautiful. Accepting my new implant was very important to me. I needed to learn how to love that new part of my body and to find power in what it represents. My breast now looks a lot better. They’re still not even, which is something I hope to correct in the future, but overall I am very happy I was able to keep my skin, my own nipple and that my plastic surgeon did a great job with the size overall look of my breast.

I recently posed topless for the project #rockyourugly by Photographer Waleed Shah. The idea behind the project is to photograph our insecurities and be proud of them, even if they’re against our beauty norms. I definitely identify with that. My breasts are not the stunning big knockers that we see on TV or magazines, but they’re the mark of my fight and I can confidently say that I do love them – lopsided and all. See the image here

As a side note, one year ago I also finalized my divorce and it had been just weeks after my dad had survived a severe heart attack. The most difficult time of my life has led me to a much stronger and wiser version of myself. Of course, I wish I did not have to go trough such loss to get me here, but at least I can pat myself on the back for taking a really shitty situation and pushing through it with love and compassion for myself. Now, I try to live my life with acceptance, spontaneity and a lot more patience. It’s still a work in process 🙂

Life Post-Cancer: Dealing with fear

Life works in mysterious ways. Today marks 3 months since I had my last chemotherapy session. Time goes by so quickly. I already have a full head of hair, my eyebrows have made a full appearance, my eyelashes are on the way and the numbness of my fingers and my toes has disappeared.

It’s been quite a journey to get here and I am still not fully recovered from everything my body has been through, but I am almost there. It’s been a few months of a lot of emotional healing, a lot of exercise and a lot of fear. I still have really bad joint pain but the more I exercise, the more I feel my bones get stronger and my muscles grow. I have decided to dedicate a lot of time to just doing the things that make me happy and make me feel good about myself. Through this, however, there has been the dark fear of a relapse. I read somewhere that having had cancer is like living with a gun pointed at you throughout your life and, as dramatic as that may sound, there is a lot of truth to it.

Cancer is not pretty. Chemotherapy made me see myself in a way I never, ever expected to. I dealt with months of not feeling like myself and it was a true mental battle to consistently remind myself that this is temporary and that it is going to make me stronger and I cannot let it bring me down. As I explained in my last post, post-cancer depression is very real and I am still coaching myself through it, taking my emotions in, acknowledging the process of recovery and, most importantly, dealing with a lot of fears. Based on all of these emotions, I had a truly beautiful, open and honest conversation with one of my closest friends this morning. I told him all my fears, I let a lot of it out and he gave me so much clarity on a lot of the confusion I was feeling. He reminded me that I don’t need to know “why” things happen but rather focus on the outcome, on what I can do to overcome it.

Today at around 7 p.m. I read about the relapse of a young woman who had survived lymphoma and had finished chemo a few weeks before me. My heart sank. The first thought in my mind was “what if that’s me?” and the second “I cannot possibly go through this again.” The fear is real. The thought of having to do everything I went through all over again can be paralyzing. It is devastating to think that this can happen when you have just started to rebuild yourself and your life after so much loss. I was upset, and it was at that moment when I had yet another conversation that brought back my sanity. I coincidentally met a survivor who noticed my port and waited for me to come back from my bathroom break to speak to me. It was as if she was reading my mind. She might not have realized the impact our conversation had on me at that moment, but she reminded me that there are people I can share my fears with and who will understand what I’m going through. She also reminded me of the changes I can make to take control over my life and not cave into the fears of life post-cancer.

I want to do more to spread awareness about, not only the prevention of cancer but also the mental and emotional impact that the disease and the treatment has on us. I am working on a few things and I am not going to give into the fear of failure or the fear of a relapse, or the many other fears get the best of me. In the past few months I have managed to rebuild a lot of my self-confidence, I managed to get promoted after going through the most difficult time of my life and to stay uplifted through a lot of hurt. Somedays, you just have to acknowledge how far you’ve come and pat yourself on the back for pulling through with some level of grace. I am doing that now. I am proud of me and of who I’ve become. This has not been easy, I still have a lot of work to do but I am proud and immensely grateful to everyone who has helped me get here – those who have been there listening, supporting and offering me nothing but love. Yet, most importantly, I am thankful to myself for making it this far. I will continue to share my fears – the good, bad and ugly – of my life in hopes that it will make a difference to someone, somewhere, just as much as it has helped me understand and love myself.

As one of my favorite quotes say:

“I will not thank you for this pain. I will not thank you for this destruction. But I thank you for this lesson: My demolition might not be on my hands, but my reconstruction is.” – Najwa Zebian.

Cover photo by Aqib Anwar – @gibsterg
Other photos by Farah Al Sharief – @1nc

Life Post-Chemo: The New Normal

It has become well known in cancer communities to speak about the “new normal” when referring to life post cancer. This is because is not really “normal” and, as I explained in my previous post, it is also not quite going back to who you used to be anymore.

The new normal came in for me with a lot of joy and energy. This is mainly given that I had spent so much time feeling shitty at home, fatigued and tried to avoid social interactions, which, if you know me well you’d know is very unlike me. Once I started to feel well, which also coincided with my birthday, I wanted to be everywhere and do everything. I had this huge appetite for living that I never really felt before. It was truly wonderful… until it wasn’t. In between the happiness and the gratitude for putting the treatment and the illness behind, I have experienced episodes of sadness, depression and sometimes a lot of built up frustration.

Experiencing difficulty adjusting back to normal life seems to be a recurrent struggle among cancer survivors of all ages. It is not spoken about very openly but it is a reality that is there, very palpable. I did not expect these feelings of inadequacy to be rushing in now. I honestly thought it would be a lot easier to simply go back to my normal life and put it all behind me. It has not been too easy at all. I understand the world very differently now, my perspective after having had this experience has completely changed and I am still trying to understand what all those shifts mean and how they will manifest in my reality.

The difficult part happens when you feel like no one around you quite understands what you’re going through and that moment of loneliness kicks in. It’s easy to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by so much love simply because you don’t feel understood among those around you. In order to address that, I have begun a cancer recovery yoga workshop so I could be surrounded by others who understand the journey and where I will not feel the pressure to be anything but myself, in all my truth, with no judgments. I have also realized that I have to take it slow, listen to myself and accept my changes as they come. A lot of cancer survivors change houses, wardrobes, cut people out, move countries or change careers once they come to terms with their new normal. Some of these changes may seem a bit irrational and erratic to those around us, but it is how we cope with what no longer feels like it’s part of our new authentic self. Once you’ve seen a different side of life, one that is dark and at times hopeless, it is expected to want to make changes if you’re given a second chance at life – a new, healthy life.

Maybe I will make the same mistakes as before, maybe not. I don’t quite know yet. I have not really figured out the repercussions of all of these feelings. At the moment I just know that I am going through a big process of change and I have to accept that patiently. More or less I feel like I am watching myself be born again, from the physical – every hair growing out from my head and my face, all new and fresh, every cell regenerating my skin – to the emotional.

To the cancer care takers and those around us, be patient with us. I know, it’s not easy to understand someone who has gone through an emotional and physical battle if you haven’t, but be mindful of all these changes. Show us empathy, not sympathy. As strong as cancer made us, there are moments when we don’t feel so powerful and figuring out who I am again is definitely one of those moments for me. All I know for now is that like with everything else, I have to trust the process and know that the outcome will be worth the struggle. On that note I am sending a lot of love to every other person going through this struggle and a wave of gratitude to those who care for us while we’re going through it.

Luz 2.0

Is it hard to feel bald and beautiful? Short answer: yes. During treatment, you spend all your energy on the fact that you don’t feel too well physically and so you spend time wishing to feel less nauseous, less shitty, etc. The physical aspect does come in of course, but you don’t have too much energy to focus on it. For me, it is now, after chemo when I really began focusing on the hair, the skin, the desire to look like yourself again…quickly. Life after cancer is a completely new thing. I am not my old self entirely, so I am not “going back” to being who I was, I feel like the experience released a Luz version 2.0 almost. I feel different, I understand life and purpose so differently now – I want to deal with my life differently. I am a strong believer on the connection between your emotional/mental health and illness, I am currently beginning to explore and discover the emotional baggage I was carrying before this – it’s a really tough journey of self-awareness, understanding and forgiveness and it sometimes involves making radical decisions of cutting out and letting things/people/situations go and just holding on to what feels real, true and gives me beautiful feels.

This Thursday will be a month since my last and final chemo session and I already feel so different. My energy levels are amazing, the hyperpigmentation on my hands and feet is getting so much better, the scars on my face are fading slowly, my hair is coming in slowly as well. I am so grateful – I am watching almost a re-birth of myself, I can see how my cells are slowly regenerating and giving my body new life and it feels magical. I am so thankful for every cell, every tissue, every beat – our bodies are resilient and our ability to heal is mind blowing. It’s hard not to be impatient and wish hair would just magically appear from one day to the next but with cancer everything is a process and I learned I must respect that and take it one day at a time. Last night I danced for hours when a few weeks ago I could not get through a song as I could hear my heart beat faster, my breath get shorter and my legs get weaker. I don’t want to forget the struggle as it continues to make me appreciate everything I am able to do now with a big smile.

I had missed writing, but I was busy enjoying life post chemo – throwing myself back into work, planning my holiday and enjoying the fact that my taste buds are back and I can enjoy my favorite foods again. Remodeling my bedroom and putting up photos of all the wonderful people in my life all over my house to remind myself that I am surrounded by love. Carrying out healing sessions so I can do the emotional work I need to do to keep myself healthy and truly content. Giving cuddles to my cat, spending time with my beautiful friends – old and new – and dancing my days away.

I want this blog to help other women with breast cancer, I want to start writing posts about what I did and experienced in a more direct / helpful way. How I managed my nausea, how I managed the dark hands and feed, how I managed the acne and the zoladex side effects, the questions to ask when you have a scare or get diagnosed, what I did and felt when I lost my hair and my eyebrows – I want to write content that will make other women going through the shit show feel less alone. If you know anyone going through this or if you are, let me know what you would like to know and I will gladly help navigate it all by sharing my experience.

In the meantime, I will celebrate turning 32 years old in 2 weeks and I’m so excited to be this new, improved version of myself. With less hair but more courage. A new confident, unapologetic and happier version of me.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their incredible support throughout this experience. My friends and family, you’re all amazing and have made me feel so much love – I have no words and I get teary eyed every time I realize how blessed I feel to have you all in my life. Thank you to those who took time out of their life to message me / call me to wish me well. Thank you to all the new friends I’ve made – I am so happy I got to know you all. Thank you to the friends who have helped me document my journey, in film or photos – it is so amazing that you all made time and used your talents on me. Thank you to every single person who came with me to my chemo sessions – you have no idea what this meant to me, you’re all truly incredible human beings!!!! I love you all deeply and I must have done something right in my life to deserve you all and the love you’ve shown me.

Chemo: the shit show

February has been such a messy month. I have been using any “free” time to be at the cinema (my job) and spend time either resting by myself or with my friends. I have also been writing but it has become a bit too personal so I needed to think about what I’m willing to expose and where the boundaries lie. Also, I have only two chemo sessions left. 2 sessions!! I can’t believe I have already done 16, it’s wild. The past few weeks I have done a lot of reminiscing and it made me think of what I wrote after my first session, which I wanted to share with you:

Yesterday I sat for my first session of chemotherapy. The day started with a small surgery to implant the – very aptly called – life port. A catheter that is connected to one of the main veins in your heart where all the chemo drugs will flow through. The drugs are too toxic to go through our regular veins as it can basically ‘fry’ them and cause all sorts if issues. I sat through 7 hours of drugs pumping through my veins. Flushing, anti-histamines, flushing, stereoids, flushing, paracetamol, flushing, Herceptin, flushing, Taxol, flushing, Carboplatin, flushing, end.

It’s hard to describe what I felt. The moment I came back from the port surgery, I was already sensitive. I cried with no warning, I felt vulnerable and weak. I had shortness of breath, I was experiencing things that I had never experienced before. I felt my body in its most human form. Unprepared, afraid and defensive. Since my unilateral mastectomy, I’ve had very little time to absorb everything that’s been happening with me.

It was a short journal entry. I spent the next two days after my first chemo in severe discomfort with palpitations and shortness of breath. After a visit with my oncologist 3 days after my port surgery and first chemo, he sent me to a pulmonologist who ordered an x-ray. The results revealed that I had a pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung. I had been walking around breathing through only one lung the entire weekend and I had no idea. It turns out this is, in fact, a very rare complication of the port insertion, but I had not been warned it could even happen. I was hospitalized for 14 days after that and had my army with me 🙂 – the girls took turns to stay with me every single of those 13 nights. During those 14 days, I had 10 x-rays and had 12 canulas (the hand/arm IV) inserted into the veins of my left arm. At some point, I had two canulas on my arm at the same time because my veins collapse very easily and the nurses would have to find a new vein every couple of days. Fun fact: after the removal of 2 of my lymph nodes during my mastectomy, my right arm cannot be “touched” meaning I cannot have blood drawn from my right arm, I cannot have IV canulas inserted or my blood pressure taken from it either as it can cause “lymphedema.” Those days were perhaps the most painful of this entire journey for me and in spite of that, I felt blessed for those around me.

Here are some photos I took of them and their smiles that would brighten up my every day:

I keep dreaming and thinking about all the things I’m going to do once chemo is over. All the places I want to visit, all the concerts I want to go to, all the music I want to dance to. The past few months have been unreal. I have not been able to travel and, at the moment, I am too tired to socialize or attempt to have a “normal” weekend. I don’t really recognize myself in the mirror either so self-confidence is low. There’s just so much effort I put into my looks lately so I can feel a little like myself. I was watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race and I actually related – from drawing my eyebrows, to putting all the makeup, to considering wearing false stick-on lashes to wearing my wig – it’s a similar life. Funny, I know, but also kind of true. When I take it all off at the end of the day and look in the mirror, I see someone I don’t recognize… in both, a good and bad way. I see someone I love so much more than before, yet at the same time, I have lost so much, that it’s hard to feel like myself. It’s very difficult to explain. All the things that used to make me feel feminine, and attractive even, I feel I’ve lost. And this is not to trigger any type of compliments, is the reality. Imagine waking up one day with no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, scars on your face, hyperpigmentation and dryness in your hands and feet… And also, with an implanted breast and a scar right through it, another scar on your chest, another scar under your arm and another scar right below it. To top it all off, you feel tired, bloated, sometimes nauseated… betrayed by your own body… It hasn’t been easy.

In the past couple of weeks I have taken my time to reflect on a lot of this. It has been a painful journey but one of growth and learning. I know I have to come to terms with it. I know I have to forgive myself for putting up with so much I did not deserve. I wanted to value myself, yet I did not. I allowed some people in my life to walk all over me. I allowed people to take advantage of me. I felt betrayed, abandoned and hurt. I want to forgive though. I want to move past every single person who hurt me. I want to forgive myself for not feeling like I was enough. I want to put it all behind me. I want to be able to trust myself too, my body, my destiny. I want to believe I will never be in this situation again. I want to protect myself, to value who I am and what I have to offer. I want to stop putting myself down or taking responsibility for other people’s emotional journeys. I want to forgive those who did not love me the same way I did. I want to forgive those who did not respect me the same way I did. I want to move past all the pain of not feeling like I was enough. I am enough. I am worthy of love and I deserve all the goodness.

On March 14th will be my last chemo session ever. I am grateful that is almost over – on that day, please do think of me and send me joy and love 🙂 I can’t wait.

World Cancer Day: Bald on, Wig off!

A few days I did an eyebrow tutorial with the wonderful makeup artist, Hindash, in hopes to be able to post it on this blog so it can help other women undergoing chemotherapy and struggling with hair loss. After doing that video, I started to receive a lot of messages of support and love and, in all honesty, I never felt so exposed before in my life. Seeing yourself in the mirror with no makeup to disguise the acne that has attacked my face since chemo began, no hair on my head, half my eyebrows gone and a few eyelash extensions – that thankfully are still holding on – is quite tough. Needless to say, putting all of this out there for the world to see, is even harder.

Today is World Cancer Day and I started to think about all the ways that cancer has challenged me. I mean, it’s cancer, it’s chemotherapy – it has affected every aspect of my life. Every week, I go and have a chemo session not knowing which side effects will show up. Then is also the realization that there are so many things I still can’t do and no matter how positive you are, it’s hard not to wish that things would just go back to “normal”, to how they were. But.. they’re not. This is who I am now, this is what I deal with now. It empowers me, though. Every day, I wake up thinking ‘awesome, I’m alive and not feeling like shit, that’s something!’  Except on the days when I wake up and I do feel like shit. Those days when the nausea is so strong is hard to eat and when you feel like your body is giving up on you a little. When you look in the mirror and you feel sad because this absolutely sucks and honestly, I don’t think I deserved it. Thinking to yourself that you know it could be so much worse but that doesn’t mean it’s good right now.

It was in one of those tough days when I was having a really hard time looking at myself in the mirror, that my best friend, and an amazing photographer, convinced me to do a photo shoot sporting my new shiny bald hair. That morning, we went to a guys hair salon and I got my head razor shaved. I had already shaved my head before then, but I had left a bit of a buzz so I don’t feel so “cancer-y,” but my little hairs were still falling and I decided that it was time to get rid of it all. I had done 100 photoshoots with Angelika before, but this one was going to be different. I knew that she was insisting I do this shoot knowing I needed a confidence boost. Her and my friend Alia dressed me up in beautiful, sparkling outfits. I used all my makeup skills and we started the shoot in this stunning house. I was super shy at the beginning – I guess I had forgotten how much of my confidence was in my hair and posing bald made me feel very exposed and vulnerable. As we started changing outfits and locations, and thanks to Angelika and Alia’s encouraging words in between takes, I began to feel more comfortable. Now, looking at the images (see gallery at the bottom) I realize that I started to gain confidence because I was feeling more and more empowered. Yes, I may not look the same as before, but I feel so much more at peace with who I am now. Yes, some days it is still not easy to look at myself in the mirror – with all the physical changes cancer has put me through – but going through those hard days is how I have been able to find so much more empathy and love for myself than ever before.

When going through cancer, we hear the words “inspiring” and “strong” so often. Since going public with my illness, I started to think about what being “inspirational” means and where strength really comes from. All the beautiful messages I’ve received started to make me wonder – is it because as a cancer patient you’re expected to be depressed and miserable and I wasn’t, that meant that it was something to be rewarded? Having had cancer does not make me better than anyone. It makes it an experience, one I did not ask for, yet one that I am trying to live with dignity and grace. It is also an experience that I sometimes hate and that makes me feel weak and vulnerable. Cancer changed me. It continues to change me every single day. I no longer think about what will happen next year, I no longer plan far ahead – I think about the next chemo session hoping that it isn’t just pure luck that my side effects have been manageable and that it does not happen that in the coming weeks the day will come when everything falls apart and I feel like absolute shit again. That’s what I think about every single week. That’s what I keep hoping for, every week, that my side effects remain manageable so I can remain myself. Even as manageable as they have been so far, I still have to remind myself that I am still me and that this is something I am hoping will help me grow and become more empathetic, more truthful, more authentic. Most importantly, I am hoping this experience will help me love myself more and help me live with the understanding that life is not for granted and that if I’m going through this is to see that silver lining and live with gratitude.

The photos below were taken a few weeks ago – right before I started to lose my eyebrows. A huge, huge, thank you to Angelika Bakou, my best friend since more than 16 years for making me feel so beautiful even in the darkest of days. This shoot challenged my own beauty ideals and I am hoping it can help destigmatize the bald look – because bald is badass. To all my cancer sisters, whether you decide to go bald, or wear a wig, or wear a hat, or whatever it is, know that you’re badass. And finally, fuck cancer.

Today, donate to help us beat this bitch:

Breast Cancer Research Foundation
Cancer Research Institute
Wigs for Heroes

Diagnosis Part II: Killer Boobs

Spoiler alert, I was diagnosed with high-grade ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – stage 0 breast cancer. After the biopsy results, I went to another two hospitals seeking other opinions, everything was consistent, it was DCIS – and apparently, this was good news. The cancer cells were still inside the milk ducts and had not spread to the breast or beyond. The next step was to do imaging: a mammogram and an MRI to determine the size of the tumor and make sure my left breast was “clean” from any cancer cells. All doctors agreed on the same thing, the solution was to immediately surgically remove the tumor from my body. This is when we started to have the conversation about the possible surgeries: lumpectomy or unilateral/bilateral mastectomy.

Polaroid taken by Malda Smadi on our first boob painting sess

I had heard the word mastectomy for the first time circa 2013 upon Angelina Jolie’s decision to do a preventative bilateral mastectomy as a BRCA gene carrier. I never really thought about how traumatic it is or could be to lose your breasts. I started to google images of women who had had different types of mastectomies and realized there is so much to think about. Some women were able to keep their own skin and nipples while some women were not. Some women opted to go flat and not get a reconstruction. Some women reconstructed with fat/muscle and tissue from other parts of their body while some women just had an implant. What was I going to do? The idea of losing one or both my breasts was horrifying. How was I going to look after surgery? What will my scars be like? How does it feel to not have a breast? If I remove just the one, will I be lopsided my entire life? How will this affect the way I view my body, my own self-confidence?

Then I sent this to the WhatsApp support group with my friends, laughing hard:

I went through a lot of imaging before we decided upon my surgery. First, I did a mammogram, a very uncomfortable exam. The radiologist squeezes each breast into two slides in the most uncomfortable positions. It’s not fun. Mammograms are not advisable for women under the age of 40 for two reasons: first of all, our breasts are too dense, and mammograms may not be able to capture any disease if present, and second, the unnecessary exposure to radiation from an exam that may not even be accurate due to the density of young women’s breasts. If you are over 40, however, please do make mammograms part of your yearly screening routine. Many Dubai hospitals will do them for free during Breast Cancer Awareness month in October every single year.

After seeing 3 oncologists and 5 surgeons in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I chose to get treated in Mediclinic City Hospital with Dr. Anett Al Hamadi. I needed to do an MRI in order to determine the size of my tumor and also make 100% sure my left breast was in the clear. Here is an interesting fact about breast MRIs, due of the hormone imbalance during our menstrual cycle, I only had a 4-day window to do my MRI if we wanted to avoid “false positives” – cysts and other things that could appear in the image and alter the results. We booked the MRI exactly in that window and I wanted to make sure it was done then. I had had enough of so many tests, and as the result-oriented, extremely controlling person I am, I was frustrated and needed to do this surgery and get this over with.

Unfortunately, 3 days before my MRI, my dad had a severe heart attack and was hospitalized in critical status in Ramallah. I traveled the morning after the incident, crossed the Jordanian border and was with my dad at the hospital by 5 pm. I spent two weeks in Palestine before my surgery and it was a true gift. I was able to witness my dad’s strength and own willingness to live, which inspired me so much in how to tackle my own disease. Yet, most importantly, I fed off my mom’s warrior energy every day, a woman so powerful, yet so humble that she does not realize that it is her spirit that has led my fight against cancer. I am in awe of her and my attempt to recreate her strength is the least I can do in her honor.

I was in a race against time to find an MRI machine in Palestine so I would not have to wait another month to get the process moving. Sadly, Palestine is full of occupation realities, one of them being that there isn’t a single MRI machine in the occupied West Bank suitable for breast MRIs specifically. This really upset me and sent me on an existential spiral of frustration: why is it that when it comes to female-specific disease there is no real effort to ensure there is the right equipment/tools for diagnosis? I had to resort to a medical agency to get an appointment in an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem. I ended up doing my MRI on the night after the Sabbath, Sunday at 1 am accompanied by a very, very distant family member who was the only one with a Jerusalem ID. Once again, occupation realities, my parents – and most of my family – are not allowed into Jerusalem without a special permit and my brother, who flew all the way from Colombia because of dad’s and my condition, was not allowed into Palestine at the Israeli checkpoint. We truly take freedom of movement for granted, don’t we?

I sat inside that MRI machine on my knees for 40 minutes. I was breathing very slowly in a conscious attempt not to move at all and barely listening to Eric Clapton, the loud sounds of the machine drowning the melody of Leila somewhere on the background. I was thinking about how grateful I am not to be claustrophobic. MRIs must be a nightmare for those who are. In my mind, it was just one more exam to get through. One more step closer to getting rid of this stupid cancer.

I came back to Dubai ready for my next step. I would spend the next two weeks waiting for the results of my MRI and of my BRCA gene test. At some point through the diagnostic process, I was advised to do the BRCA gene test in order to make sure I was not a carrier of the BRCA gene, which if you’re a carrier increases your possibilities to develop breast and ovarian cancer. The test is expensive (US$1,800 approx.) and not covered by insurance. I decided that peace of mind was more important and did the test with IPS Genomix in Dubai. The results take 5 – 6 weeks to come back.

I was already very impatient, I just wanted to know what was going to happen. In almost comedic fashion, I received the MRI results in Hebrew. I had to send them back to the agency for translation, which took another few days. In between, however, I received the first piece of good news: I was BRCA negative. That was a huge relief. It meant I was not genetically predisposed to get cancer. It also meant, however, that I had nothing to blame it on. The “why” began attacking me again and this is when I decided to see a therapist once a week and also began doing some energy healing sessions in order to get some perspective over the diagnosis.

Focusing on my mental health during this time was very important to me. I had to get past a lot of demons before I began tackling my disease. I felt that I needed to understand “what for” rather than “why” this was all happening to me. It was that small change in semantics that made all the difference. No, I still don’t think cancer is a gift. It is not a gift. Cancer sucks and going through it is a bitch and a half. It just meant that I would focus on what this experience brought to my life in a more positive way. It still means that I am looking for the meaning beyond it, taking it day by day always with a little bit of humor in between.

The Diagnosis – Part I

The first time I felt the lump on the right side of my right nipple was back in February 2018. I honestly did not think it could possibly be cancer, not then anyway. I thought it was a fibrocystic growth because I had stopped the birth control pill after 10 years of constantly taking it. I thought it was just a random lump that would eventually go away.

I will take this opportunity to highlight the importance of doing self examinations when it comes to breast cancer detection. If it wasn’t for a self-check I would not have caught the cancerous tumor at such an early stage and perhaps I’d be telling a different story now. It was always important to me to get familiar with my body and know it well and this probably saved my life. The only way to determine if something is not “normal” on your body, is to get to know your body well. Clearly, as I am here to demonstrate, cancer does not discriminate based on age or much else, so no matter how young and healthy you are, start to get to know yourself through self-examinations every first of the month, make it into a habit! #feelitonthefirst.

Going back to the story, the beginning of 2018 was quite busy and intense, I traveled to the US, I also started the process of my separation and ultimately, my divorce. It was a painful time, I ended a relationship of 7 years and with that, I forgot for a little while about the lump on my right breast. I was going through a lot emotionally and decided to dedicate a bit of time to myself and to my own introspection. I wanted to make sure I was addressing some of the issues that led me to where I was. It was around July that I started to notice that the little lump on my right breast was not as little anymore, and after a conversation with one of my best friends, when she called me a dumb idiot for not checking it, I decided it was time. At that point I had made several excuses not to get it checked, I had some insurance issues and I realized later on that deep inside I was just terrified that it could be something serious, but well, in the end, I had to get it done.

I made an appointment with a gyno to get it checked. She examined me and had a bit of a concerned face. She referred me to a general surgeon and ordered an ultrasound. She said it was best to follow up with a surgeon and he will decide on the need of a biopsy. I was sent to his office immediately for another exam. I entered his office and explained it all over again. He asked me the same questions as I started to take off my top and bra once again: “Are you married? When did you feel the lump? Have you felt it’s grown? Have you had any nipple discharge or changes to your health? Does it hurt?” The answers to all were no, except I wasn’t sure if it had grown.

It was ironic, then I realized that I was actually feeling at the healthiest I had for a long time. I was working out 4-5 times week, I had high energy every day, I was eating well after I had gotten my food right with the help of a nutritionist. The only bad thing I was still doing was smoking, a habit I picked up at 14 years old and was too much of a pleasure to quit, but everything else was in order. I was a healthy 31-year-old who had never had any serious health problems. My only time inside an operating room was when I got my tonsils removed, that’s it.

breast cancer in young women. Young adult breast cancer.
I took this photo one day after my diagnosis

The surgeon was not happy. The lump on my breast was a “hard, uneven mass” and we needed to do an ultrasound right away. Tomorrow. We made the appointment as I was still telling myself that it was nothing, that the ultrasound will turn out fine.

The next day I met the radiologist, a lovely soft-spoken man that made the experience a little less annoying. Removing my shirt and bra became a standard very quickly – it’s odd how this whole experience would eventually lead me to desexualize my breasts because of how often I had to show them to strangers. The ultrasound starts by getting cold jelly all over your breasts and axilla as the radiologist carefully passes through every part yet focusing on where the lump is. It’s an uncomfortable but not a painful procedure. During the procedure he did not say much, he asked me the same questions every other doctor had asked me and when we were done, he sat on his computer and printed a report and told me to take it immediately to my doctor. The report read “suspicion for high-grade carcinoma, a biopsy is recommended immediately.”

I can’t explain what I felt at that moment. First, I wondered how the radiologist could be so insensitive as to give me the report before the doctor could manage my expectations. Particularly since no biopsy had been done yet. Second, I panicked, I picked up my phone to google but stopped myself in the middle. I had made the mistake of going to a couple of these initial appointments on my own, and it wasn’t too smart. Yes, I like to think of myself as a strong, independent woman who can handle her shit, but this is not one of those things you want to be alone for. As I stepped into the doctor’s office, he told me to relax, that we still did not know much for certain and that the next step was to do a biopsy, tomorrow, ideally.

 I understood the urgency, however, that particular weekend I had booked a weekend away by myself to Zanzibar. It would be my first trip on my own after my divorce, a trip I really needed in order to get my mind in order, to do some introspection and move on from that phase of my life. How was I going to do that with this hanging over my head? I tried to remain calm. It’s fine, it’s just a lump. It’s not going to be anything. The doctor agreed to do my biopsy upon my arrival from Zanzibar, I departed the next morning to spend a few days with myself, with my fears, with my hopes, with my heartache.

Breast cancer diagnosis. Young adult breast cancer.
In Zanzibar

Those 3 nights in Zanzibar were a true gift. I learned that timing is everything and that trip came around at the perfect time to allow me to endure what was to come. I did not know it then. I spent four days by myself, in a room that overlooked the beautiful blue sea with a notebook and a novel by Isabel Allende. I walked up and down that beach every day, I meditated while inside the ocean – I asked myself tough questions and got to know myself better. It was enlightening and eye-opening. Relaxed, by the beach and with a cigarette and beer on my hand, I wondered what would happen if they tell me that I have cancer and the only answer I had to myself was “I’ll face it.”