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Attitude a major weapon in cancer fight, experts say

Breast cancer survivors encounter many emotions throughout their treatment, including a fear of the unknown.

DUBAI // Suchita Dsouza's vibrancy and spirit for life are almost contagious.

A breast cancer survivor, Ms Dsouza 35, said her experience has given her a new outlook on life.

"Before, I would focus on the daily routines and not take the time to enjoy every moment," she said. "Now, all that has changed."

Instead of becoming a victim to life's obstacles, Ms Dsouza now faces each challenge head on.

Dr Maroun El Khoury, a consultant haematologist-oncologist at the American Hospital Dubai, said renewed appreciation for life was common among cancer survivors, but the journey was far from easy.

"Throughout their diagnosis and treatments, patients encounter many emotions including depression, anxiety and fear," Dr El Khoury said.

Speaking this week on the sidelines of a seminar on surviving breast cancer, he said patients often demonstrated a "fear of the unknown" in the diagnosis stage.

"People respond by saying, 'Oh my God, I have a family', or 'What am I going to do?'" he said. "But I tell them to wait and calm down; that good treatment is available."

The detection, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer has come a long way, he said.

"Ten years ago, someone diagnosed with stage four breast cancer would be given a life expectancy of one or two years," he said. "But with the options available today, people can go on to live another eight, nine or 10 years."

Experts say patients' perception of their disease could influence their response to treatment.

"Attitude is everything," Dr El Khoury said. "For example, studies show that people who are in denial or don't have enough information about their condition are more likely to experience the side effects of chemotherapy."

"Patients must be hopeful but realistic. They should decide that something good will come out of this adversity."

A patient's understanding of the condition, and their ability to be actively involved and educated about the treatment options available is also important, he said.

"They must understand that they have the disease; the disease doesn't have them," he said.

Breast cancer strikes at an earlier age in the UAE, often increasing the psychological trauma. Thirty per cent of patients at the hospital are under 40 and about 40 per cent of patients in the UAE and GCC receive a diagnosis in the later stages of the disease, Dr El Khoury said.

Family and social support is key to ensuring the patient's psychological health, said Devika Singh, a psychologist at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre.

"It's been proven that the chemical and hormonal levels change in women when they are socially bonding," Ms Singh said. "Research also shows having a support system in place leads to more commitment to the treatment process."

Society's perception of cancer can deeply affect patients' reactions when the disease is diagnosed and their resolve to fight it.

"Sometimes there can be an element of blame and the responsibility can be entirely placed on the patient," Ms Singh said. "But through awareness campaigns in the media, these perceptions are changing."

Help from the community and constant positive messages enable patients to focus on the factors that they can control in their lives, Ms Singh said.

For Ms Dsouza, the support of her loved ones meant everything.

"They were always around me: my husband, my friends, my doctors, even the nurses," she said. "I really don't know how I could have gone through this experience without them."

mismail@thenational.ae

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