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DUBAI: Gloria Halim, Cristina Polo, Sapna Venugopal and Bharti Rao come from very different backgrounds but they have one thing in common: they are all breast cancer survivors who came out of their battle with the disease with a new vision of life and a desire to help others.

The four women, who are between 40 and 50, are among the millions of women around the world every year who are diagnosed with breast cancer and embark on a difficult journey of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy to overcome what can be a fatal disease. .

Beyond the physical side effects of treatments, the experience of fighting and beating cancer can have a profound emotional effect on women. Indeed, doctors say that the vast majority of patients leave treatment with a greater willingness to reach out to others.

Many also take what is often seen as a second chance as a sign to change direction in their life, take on new challenges, or change careers.

British citizen Gloria Halim, for example, was working in the IT industry in the UK when she found out she had breast cancer 14 years ago. Now in her mid-40s, she is a Corporate Wellness Manager and Certified Holistic Health Practitioner living in Dubai.

Breast cancer, known to be the most common cancer in women worldwide, is the leading cause of death among Saudi women, according to a retrospective epidemiological study conducted in 2012. (Shutterstock)

“For me, the key information is that prevention is possible and important,” Halim told Arab News this month, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Having been through what I’ve been through, there’s no way I want anyone else to go through it.”

Halim said she came to appreciate the importance of good physical, emotional and mental health in helping to reduce stress and maintain a strong immune system.

“We are not built to be constantly in fight or flight mode,” she said. “It takes a long time to get to the point where the human body says, ‘I’ve had enough. I can not move. The immune system decreases, inflammation of body organs increases, an environment conducive to disease develops.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world. As of December of last year, 7.8 million surviving women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years, according to the World Health Organization. In 2020, around 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide and 685,000 died from it.

In Saudi Arabia, of the 24,485 cancer cases recorded in 2018, 14.8% were breast cancer, making it the most common form of cancer in the Kingdom. Of the 4,707 cancer cases recorded in the United Arab Emirates in the same year, 22.4% were breast cancer.

From left to right: Bharti Rao, Cristina Polo and Sapna Venugopal who all beat breast cancer. (Provided)

While there was little improvement in breast cancer mortality figures between the 1930s and 1970s, survival rates began to increase in several countries from the 1980s, thanks to early detection programs and new and improved treatments.

A growing body of research and significant medical advancements continue to improve the prognosis for millions of women with the disease. But perhaps the most important development has been the increase in public awareness and the willingness of women to check themselves regularly and seek help early if they notice a potential problem.

Cristina Polo, from France, was 43 years old and lived in Dubai when she noticed a breast lump in 2018. Determined to see her daughter, who was six at the time and the youngest of three siblings, growing up and having children of her own, she immediately sought treatment.

“Since being treated for cancer, I have thirsted for a life,” she told Arab News. “I have this urge to do things in life that I kept putting off or putting aside, saying I would do them later.”

Like Halim, Polo saw his victory over cancer as an opportunity to change course. After completing her treatment, she resigned from a managerial position in Dubai’s hospitality industry, started a digital marketing course, obtained a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and started a blog, called Cancer Majlis, dedicated to cancer awareness.


* 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide in 2020.

* 685,000 deaths from breast cancer worldwide in 2020.

(Source: WHO)

She said she spent many years before she faced cancer worrying about the “what ifs” and delaying changes.

“Then, boom, the diagnosis came,” Polo said. “Suddenly everything ‘what if, what if, what if’ turned into ‘what else, what else, what else can I explore? “”

Polo moved to Paris last year, where she teaches English at a French hotel school and is a consultant for the travel and hospitality industry. She also enjoys sculpting and painting in her spare time and volunteers with recovering cancer patients, helping them plan their lives after cancer by developing new skills in the arts.

Sapna Venugopal had the same desire to help others after her cancer diagnosis in September 2017 at the age of 46 while living in Dubai. So she started volunteering to visit patients undergoing chemotherapy in the city and donate part of her income as a jewelry designer and furniture restoration to a cancer charity in his native India.

Despite numerous awareness campaigns launched by governments and charities around the world, women are still often in shock when they are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Pink umbrellas decorate the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health in the capital Beirut as part of a nationwide breast cancer public awareness campaign. (AFP / File Photo)

“At the very beginning, everyone thinks they have just been sentenced to death, which is not the case,” Elsbeth Bentley, nurse at Mediclinic City Hospital in Dubai, told Arab News. She is one of the few breast cancer nurses in the United Arab Emirates to take an additional year of training to teach them how to meet the specific needs of breast cancer patients, with an emphasis on communication skills.

“Research shows that after the word ‘cancer’ has been mentioned in a meeting with a doctor, most people will only remember 20% of what they are told because it freezes the brain and there is has this feeling that this is happening to someone. else and they are not connected to it, ”added Bentley.

Regardless of their background and social status, all women react to the diagnosis the same, said Bissi Punnackel-Sivaraman, breast care nurse at King’s College Hospital in Dubai.

“It is a stressful time,” she told Arab News. “Most of the time, patients will be in shock at the time of diagnosis, followed by anger, anxiety, fear and loneliness. Some patients will be in denial and it will take some time for them to come to terms with the diagnosis, as this happens unexpectedly.

“The initial reaction will be more or less the same. But the care and management of treatment may be slightly different, as each individual is unique and this may depend on their personal, family and work history. “

Bharti Rao from India recalls feeling ‘absolutely numb’ and slipping into a state of denial when cancer was diagnosed in 2018, the year she turned 40, while she was alive. to Dubai.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is lit up in pink to raise awareness and fundraise to fight breast cancer. (AFP / File Photo)

“But I didn’t stay there long because I understood that the more I go into denial, the more I am pushed into darkness,” she told Arab News.

Rao said she drew much of her determination to seek treatment and overcome the illness of her husband, parents, daughters and in-laws.

“I fought physically but they fought with me mentally and physiologically,” she said. “And that’s where my battle was won. My day started with a smile and ended with gratitude.

Rao worked in the banking industry but quit his job before being diagnosed with cancer and worked as a volunteer to help children with autism. After overcoming the disease, she developed a new outlook on life and is now a certified holistic lifestyle coach who provides her services for free to friends and relatives in Dubai and to others they refer to her. , helping them on their emotional journeys while battling cancer.

Many breast cancer survivors clearly feel that they have been given a second chance in life to take on new challenges and carry on experiences they had long overlooked. Many also emerge with a sense of gratitude and a desire to give something back in some way.

“They want to see good come out of it,” said nurse Bentley. “Life will not go back to exactly the way it was. Something in them has changed and it means that they no longer want to accept the things they used to accept.

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