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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Cancer survivors offer hope that there is life after diagnosis

Three UAE residents who have battled the disease share their thoughts on how to overcome what is a major obstacle in life

Saif Zarouta, who was given just eight months to live but is now confident after a successful operation, talks to his surgeon, Ali Aldameh, at Al Zahra Hospital Reem Mohammed / The National
Saif Zarouta, who was given just eight months to live but is now confident after a successful operation, talks to his surgeon, Ali Aldameh, at Al Zahra Hospital Reem Mohammed / The National

Three cancer patients, one of whom was given only months to live, have beaten the odds to survive and now want to tell the world that cancer is not a death sentence.

Nahla Shireef was given only a 60 per cent chance of survival from stage three breast cancer, while Saif Zarouta had successful lung cancer surgery recently and Nadia Metwali Ali has been through the trauma of a double mastectomy but each are keen to stress that a cancer diagnosis is not the end for those who choose to fight.

Doctors have also backed that view as they say cancer is no longer viewed as a terminal condition, rather a chronic one that can be treated effectively, given it is detected early enough.

Mrs Shireef, a 52-year-old expatriate from Syria, found a lump between her right breast and shoulder four years ago and got it checked out.

“I went through different examinations and they found that I suffer from several benign tumors,” she said.

She was going to have surgery in India until doctors there directed her to a specialist in Dubai. More tests ensued with the result being that she had malignant tumours.

“A few days later, I started my chemotherapy treatment and did not agree to undergo surgical procedures. I then consulted two doctors who told me that cancer has spread in my body,” said Mrs Shireef, of a small tumour found in her respiratory system.

“The tumour in my respiratory system went due to chemotherapy and I am still continuing my treatment - for the past three and a half years. I am undergoing chemotherapy and Herceptin treatment courses.

“However, I am continuing my life happily and peacefully. Children and adults are dying in Syria. They did not suffer from cancer, but they died. I have a strong belief in God that made me change my perception and I believed that cancer will not cause my death.”

Mrs Shireef’s brother recently died in Syria and, with the ongoing war in her homeland, she takes the view that cancer is a small battle by comparison.

“He cried when he heard that I suffer from cancer, may he rest in peace,” she said. “But I have a strong faith in God and felt that many people are going through tougher situations.”

Helping her along the way was the Sharjah-based Friends of Cancer Patients group, which she said stood by her “emotionally and financially”, becoming “like family”.

“Sometimes patients I meet are extremely sad, to the extent that they do not want to carry on with their treatment,” she said. “I and other patients who battled cancer or are living with the condition try to hearten them.”

For marine engineer Saif Zarouta, 63, the key message he wants to send to people is to quit smoking, after 30 years of the habit caused him to get lung cancer.

He was told he only had eight months to live but now, four months on and after a successful nine-hour surgery at Al Zahra Hospital in Dubai, he is optimistic about the future.

“I went to different hospitals and doctors who all told me that I only have eight months,” said Mr Zarouta, who weighs 180kg, a factor that complicated surgery.

“Long discussions about the surgery and its complications were conducted with the doctor. But I wanted to carry this battle against cancer and spread as much awareness about the dangers of smoking and the importance of early detection.

“Smoking is a very dangerous habit and I advise every smoker to quit. It starts with one cigarette and then the person will become an addict.”

Mr Zarouta admits that he also wasn’t eating healthily but he now expects to be home with his family within two weeks, and he has vowed to change his habits and may even undergo bariatric surgery to help reduce his weight.

His surgeon, Dr Ali Aldameh, 46, said he is seeing more cancer patients.

“A spike in cancer patients has been recorded in the past few years,” he said. “It’s due to smoking and exposure to certain fumes. As people age and spend dozens of years with smoking habits, there has been an increase in lung cancer.”

Dr Aldameh said several UAE studies showed that lung cancer is the number one cause of death among cancers and cancer-related diseases.

Ms Ali first got the news she had breast cancer aged 56 after going for a screening during the annual Pink Caravan event, organised by Friends of Cancer Patients. Now 62, she said the support of the group, her family and friends has brought her through a difficult period of her life but she can now proudly say that she is cancer-free and living healthy.

On first discovery, she had stage two cancer but after tests at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, doctors found that it had developed to stage three, reducing chances of survival from 90 per cent to 60 per cent.

The Egyptian, who has lived in the UAE for 36 years, underwent a double mastectomy and, although she still needs to have regular check-ups, doctors have given her the all-clear.

“I want to spread a message about the importance of routine check-ups,” said Ms Ali, who now goes for medical check-ups every six months.

“At some points I went through ups and downs but my strong belief in God's will has helped me during the treatment.

“When doctors informed me that I suffer from breast cancer, I was not terrified because cancer is a treatable disease. My husband suffered from the same illness and I stood by his side in his battle, so I already knew the methods to cope up with the illness.”

Friends of Cancer Patients organises many campaigns to help raise awareness about the importance of early detection. A campaign called Kashf, which means detection in Arabic, promotes screenings for the early detectable cancers - breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, skin cancer and childhood cancer.

Dr Sawsan Al Madhi, its director general, said that people should no longer consider cancer a terminal disease but one that can be lived with or even overcome.

“As treatments have become more sophisticated, more and more people are being cured from cancer or living longer with cancer. Therefore, it is becoming a chronic condition similar to those illnesses linked to diabetes and heart-related illnesses," said Dr Al Madhi.

The four stages of cancer

Cancer is divided into four stages and this allows patients to determine the extent to which it is affecting their bodies and also helps in determining treatment options. Stage 1, or early stage cancer, is classed as a small tumour that is contained within the organ it originated in. Stage 2 is when the cancer has not started to spread into surrounding tissue but the tumour is larger than in Stage 1. In some Stage 2 cases the cancer cells have spread into the lymph nodes close to the tumour but this depends on the particular type of cancer. Stage 3 is when the cancer is larger and it may have started to spread into surrounding tissues and there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes. The final stage, Stage 4, is when the cancer has spread from where it started to another organ. This is also called secondary or metastatic cancer.

Statistics show that about 30,000 people a year will have lung cancer diagnosed in the Middle East by 2020, up from almost 17,000 in 2008. In Abu Dhabi, cancer is the third leading cause of death, both among Emiratis and expatriates. It accounted for 16 per cent of total deaths in 2015, according to statistics from the Health Authority Abu Dhabi. This amounts to 427 deaths caused by cancer in that year, 44 per cent of them women and 56 per cent men.

In order, the leading cancers causing death among men in Abu Dhabi were lung, colorectal, liver, leukaemia and pancreas. For women, it was breast cancer, colorectal, leukaemia, ovary and then lung cancer.