x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Cancer patient calls for people to not ignore warning signs

Filipino mother-of-three ignored her body and relatives, only to find a cancerous tumour.

Efipania Balala, 49, poses for a portrait at the American European Medical Center. Efipania was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and has since had surgery to remove the tumor. Razan Alzayani / The National
Efipania Balala, 49, poses for a portrait at the American European Medical Center. Efipania was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and has since had surgery to remove the tumor. Razan Alzayani / The National

ABU DHABI // When Efipania Balala was told she had cancer, her thoughts immediately turned to her three children.

"I thought I would die," said the Filipina, who has sons aged 15, 12 and nine. "I couldn't move, I needed to call my niece to take me home. I was thinking about my children and who would take care of them."

The earth-shattering diagnosis of colorectal cancer came after the Abu Dhabi resident had ignored her body's warnings for months.

"I saw symptoms, a small amount of blood in my stool for more than six months, but I ignored it," said Ms Balala, 49, who has lived in the emirate for 17 years.

"You just feel it will go. I thought it would just go. I talked to my sister but my sister told me, 'you have to go to the doctor if it's like that, it's not normal'. I also ignored my sister."

When the amount of blood increased, Ms Balala finally decided to see her doctor, who sent her to see a consultant gastroenterologist, Dr Huda Kataa.

A colonoscopy showed a large mass and biopsies confirmed the tumour was malignant. Within a matter of weeks, the gift shop worker was at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City on the operating table having the tumour removed.

Nearly 10 months on, she is still having regular check-ups to ensure there is no recurrence of the tumour but has not required any further treatment.

"To find out that I didn't need chemotherapy was a relief," Ms Balala said.

The mother is looking forward to celebrating her 50th birthday in July in the Philippines with her children, who live there with family members.

Ms Balala will have another colonoscopy this summer, as a check-up one year after the operation, and is urging other people not to dismiss warning signs as she did. In her case these also included constipation and abdominal pain.

"My message to people is don't ignore even drops of blood," she said. "They have to rush to the doctor and have the check-up, this is really very important."

Health Authority Abu Dhabi, or Haad, is encouraging people aged between 40 and 75 to have themselves checked as part of an emirate-wide programme that started this year.

Colorectal cancer, a malignant tumour that occurs in the colon or rectum, is the second most common form of cancer in the emirate.

Dr Kataa, who works at American European Medical Centre in the city, has joined her patient in urging people to take part in the screening.

"It usually starts with a benign tumour, which is called a polyp," she said. "Most polyps, they don't progress to cancer, but some of the polyps, after 10 or 15 years, develop into cancers.

"So having screening, which means examining the patient early enough when they have no symptoms and removing the polyps, will protect from colorectal cancer."

Dr Kataa also highlighted the importance of people seeking medical attention when symptoms occur.

"If it is detected early, it can be cured," she said. "In the later stages, the treatment is only palliative, which means there is no cure."

While some people can have the disease without any symptoms, problems to look out for include rectal bleeding - especially if blood is mixed with the stool - abdominal pain, any recent changes in bowel habits, such as constipation and diarrhoea, weight loss and anaemia, Dr Kataa added.

This week the UAE charity Friends of Cancer Patients also stressed the need to catch the disease early.

"Regular colorectal cancer screening or testing is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing, early detection and successful treatment of the disease," said its secretary general, Dr Sawsan Al Madhi.

The organisation works to raise awareness of several early detectable cancers, including breast, cervical, prostate, skin and colon.

ecleland@thenational.ae