Diagnosed with cancer in 2015 just a month shy of celebrating her 25th birthday wasn’t something Hiba had in mind. No one of that age would – or should, for that matter. She had noticed a persistent lump in her breast for four years yet radiologists concluded that it was a cyst and nothing of concern about considering how young she is.
Plus, cancer only happens to older people, right?
It was only when she started bleeding from the left nipple did this start raising alarms. “I consulted a radiologist who said it was nothing and that it was normal for a breastfeeder. But I wasn’t even married!”
And that’s when the doctor realised something just didn’t add up.
The ultrasound confirmed her worst fears. “It showed a tumour with signs of cancer and within four days I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Breast Cancer.”
Fast forward to two and a half years later, Hiba has completed six cycles of chemotherapy (FEC and Taxotere), a unilateral mastectomy without reconstruction and 15 rounds of radiation therapy, 17 rounds of Herceptin (targeted therapy) and two surgeries to remove cysts from both her ovaries.
At the moment, she’s already onto her second year of a 5-year Tamoxifen course which helps in preventing relapse.
While it’s easy for us to summarise her experience succinctly in a sentence – it’s far from what Hiba’s experience actually entailed.
“The first thing that came to my mind when my breast surgeon told me that I have breast cancer was, ‘Is my mum okay?’. My father had passed a month before my diagnosis, so I wanted to stay strong for her. When it came to laying out my options, I told my Doctor to lay out my treatment plan for me and to not sugar coat things. I wanted to know exactly what I was getting myself into and how would I go about preparing for it.”
“It has to be during my first chemotherapy cycle. I often felt nauseated and had a loss of appetite – which is saying something as I’m quite the foodie! Sleep had to happen every two hours or I’d feel so drained. Soon after, I started to lose my hair and became really forgetful. But it was the fact that your body feels so disconnected from you (if that makes sense), that reduced me to tears every couple of days.
Another tough part was earlier this year when I had a recurrence of yeast infections. I do know that for a lot of people, yeast infections would occur once and then go away. However, due to the side effect of Tamoxifen, it’d happen every two weeks or so – and additional medications just wouldn’t cure it.
Taking Time Off
“I think every patient should have a period of time where they can relax. Right before my Herceptin treatment, I travelled for a month to the UK, Iceland and Switzerland where I got to focus on just me. It was nice to not plans things and to just go with the flow. It was extra special and exciting as while I was travelling, my family was planning my engagement! I got engaged five days after I arrived home.”
Being Kind To Yourself
“I do have the tendency to put myself down when I feel like my performance isn’t as good as it was pre-cancer. I’d get frustrated and end up ranting to my oncologist. She often reminds me that I need to be more patient and compassionate with myself. So, I’m learning. I’m learning to focus more on myself, be more forgiving and to make myself happy.”
Life As A Survivor
“I remind myself that cancer was just a bump in my life’s journey – not a permanent barrier. Certain things that I also deal with is “Chemo Brain”, where I’m more forgetful and less focused than usual. I get hot flashes every now and then and I haven’t had a deep sleep since I started treatment.
But throughout my journey, I became closer to old friends and found new ones along the way. I learnt that you can learn lessons from someone younger than you. I got to travel to places I thought I’d never see so soon. I found the love of my life (he proposed during the end of my chemotherapy cycle!) and most importantly – I learnt to appreciate everything and to count my blessings every day.”
“I knew that didn’t want a job just to pay the bills. I wanted to work for a more humanitarian cause. I had a few job offers but none really fit into what I had in mind. Then I came across Cancer Research Malaysia’s job posting looking for an Events Executive and I told myself, that’s the job I want! I love organising events and it would be great to do it for a cause so close to home. With my role here, my goal is to be able to raise more funds through fundraising events so our research efforts aren’t hampered.”