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'I understand suffering because I have suffered'

Sherin Abu Sliman, a nurse, admits she never examined herself or asked a doctor to examine her.

ABU DHABI // As a nurse, Sherin Abu Sliman was more aware than most of the dangers of breast cancer, yet admits she never examined herself or asked a doctor to examine her. "I knew about breast cancer, of course, but I just never connected it with myself," she says. She was just 23 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Once I felt the lump, I knew it was cancer," she says. "A chill, like I had stepped from a cold bath into an air-conditioned room, came over me. A big fear."

She found the lump while at home, trying on a new bra. It was already large, bigger than a grape, when she noticed it. "It was like a rock was in my chest," she says. "It had edges. It was hard and had an irregular shape. I felt that it was an abnormal thing." Three days later, Miss Sliman was beginning her treatment. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation before having part of her breast removed. "I have the nipple and a quarter - that is what I have been left with," she says.

"I had augmentation two or three years back, but it is not the same. It is good, but it is still different." The treatment changed her appearance. She lost all of her hair, including her eyebrows. "Nothing was like before ? nothing at all," she says. "My hair was very long and now there is nothing and I thought 'I have to start with what I can change'." So she decided to start exercising. "I joined the gym ? I put all my sadness into it and I worked hard. I didn't want to think."

The exercising was a success - she lost 30kg. Breast cancer can be especially hard for young women who have to go through drastic physical changes at a time when society expects them to be at their most attractive. "I was not scared about death, I was scared of my looks," Miss Sliman says. "Whatever I thought about death, it would not stick in my mind. I was more worried for my shape than my life."

The changes took their toll on her personal life. "I was engaged," she says. "I fell in love with somebody during that period of time and it was too difficult. In one way, I think maybe he left me for this - I don't know." However, Miss Sliman has been inundated with other offers of marriage and is engaged again. "I discovered at that time how many people loved me," she says. "It's not always about your shape, people love you for you and that does not change."

Despite her hardships, or perhaps because of them, she says she would not change the past. "I thank God that I have this," she says. "Really. It made me stronger. I know everything about myself and I know more about people. I feel more. I understand suffering because I have suffered." Unsurprisingly, she thinks all women should examine their breasts regularly. "Women have to check," she says. "There is no need to be afraid to go to the doctor, or to examine yourself, or to be shy. When you discover a little thing you have to inform your doctor. It is better than losing your life."

@Email:amcmeans@thenational.ae

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