x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Abu Dhabi cancer survivor's Antarctic mission

The mother-of-three wants to show people there is hope after a diagnosis and is about to embark on the challenge of a lifetime to prove it.

Taghrid Khoury training for the Antarctic Expedition, which she will be participating with 12 other breast-cancer survivors. Sammy Dallal / The National
Taghrid Khoury training for the Antarctic Expedition, which she will be participating with 12 other breast-cancer survivors. Sammy Dallal / The National

ABU DHABI // Taghrid Khoury knows all about the heartache breast cancer can cause.

She battled the disease, watched her sister fight it and lost a very good friend to it.

But the mother of three wants to show people there is hope after the disease has been diagnosed and is embarking on the challenge of a lifetime to prove it.

In a matter of days Ms Khoury will join a group of fellow breast-cancer survivors from the UAE who are heading to Antarctica to raise awareness of the disease.

Breast cancer is the second-most common cause of death among women in the country after cardiovascular disease.

On average, 170 women a year have breast cancer diagnosed in Abu Dhabi emirate alone.

The illness has had a major effect on Ms Khoury's life since 2005.

First her younger sister, Margaret Barkett, who lives in America, had the condition diagnosed when she was 37.

Ms Khoury, a Pilates teacher who is Lebanese and has lived in the UAE for 30 years, said: "The shock for me was worse when she got it. I used to say, 'I wish it was me'."

It would be, sooner than she could have imagined.

Less than eight months after her sister's diagnosis, she was told that she also had the disease.

The diagnosis came after her sister encouraged her to get a check-up when she was visiting the US. An ultrasound revealed a lump.

"She knew our aunt and grandmother both had breast cancer," said Ms Khoury.

"She was doing a lot of research and felt there was some genetic thing that we could have. She really saved my life as I would not have done it until maybe a year later and the cancer would have grown."

At first, Ms Khoury kept the news to herself because she was about to go to Canada to celebrate the end of her sister's radiotherapy.

"Just when we were about to go, I found out I had it," she said. "I didn't tell anybody."

Ms Khoury underwent a lumpectomy and radiotherapy in the US, along with hormone treatment.

Now she and her sister are clear of the disease but still have regular check-ups.

In January this year, Ms Khoury lost a close friend to breast cancer. Zibaa Calamawy, who lived in Abu Dhabi, died at 62.

It is in memory of her late friend that Ms Khoury is taking on the Antarctic challenge - and she will have her sister by her side.

"I wanted my sister because she saved my life," she said. "She has been through it as well.

"I'm a person who loves adventure and loves travelling. With the breast-cancer experience, it makes you realise that life is so precious.

"Breast cancer is not a death sentence. If you are careful and aware and are vigilant, keep up to date and take charge of your health, that's the way to approach it.

"Although I have lost two friends now, I feel very optimistic that if people check early and they diagnose it early, you hope that this doesn't result in death."

The trek, which runs from December 3 to 13 under the patronage of Sheikha Al Jazia bint Saif, wife of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, is being organised by Mountain High - a group that runs personal-development programmes for women.

Its founder, Julie Lewis, believes it will be the first team of breast-cancer survivors from the UAE to journey to Antarctica.

"I think it's important to highlight the strength and spirit of women, to encourage more women to be explorers and to have real women, real breast-cancer survivors and real storytellers to document and leave a legacy to inspire and empower other women to think 'I can do it'," said the 50-year-old from the UK, who lives in Abu Dhabi.

The 10 UAE women, in their 40s and 50s, will be joined by two from overseas for the challenge, which will involve snowshoeing, kayaking and mountaineering.

As part of the training the group has been to Ski Dubai, even camping there one night to get used to temperatures as low as minus 6°C.