Last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A routine mammogram led to a more in-depth one and then to a biopsy. I was certain that nothing would turn up, as I did not fit the profile – I have no family history of breast cancer (I later learned that only 10 percent of cases show a genetic history), eat a healthy diet, exercise, nursed both my children and have never touched a drink or a cigarette in my life. Despite this profile, I turned out to be the one in eight women who is diagnosed with the disease.
The doctor called during the first days of Ramadan 2012: “I have some good news and some bad news.” Not too comforting a start. “It’s not malignant. But it is atypical.” OK, then.
The initial diagnosis was Atypical Ductal Hyperplasia (ADH), a process by which healthy cells start misbehaving. They stack up on each other and take on an abnormal appearance. Left untreated, they can become cancerous and perhaps invasive. I scheduled a lumpectomy.
In 90 percent of the cases, the surgery confirms ADH, my breast surgeon reassured me, and nothing more needs to be done, except for diligent annual mammograms. In 10 percent of cases however, the surgery reveals cancer. I’m usually much luckier.
Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, or DCIS, to be precise. It’s very early stage breast cancer, the best type to have if one could choose. The lumpectomy showed clear margins, confirming that the cancer was contained, not invasive, as is usually the case with DCIS. Radiation followed the diagnosis and the doctors gave me the option of taking a drug that helps prevent recurrence. I am, indeed, as lucky as I thought.
My husband was shocked; I’m supposed to be the one who never gets sick and keeps it all together. My kids – 16 and10 at the time – were scared. I reassured them constantly and tried to continue their normal routine. My parents redoubled their prayers for me. It’s amazing how much strength God gives you when you need it most. I remember being more organized, trusting my intuition, and staying calm.
But the shock of the diagnosis was still hard to bear, especially as it capped the most difficult year of my life. It felt surreal – attending breast cancer survivor seminars on Saturday mornings; parking in the spot for “Radiation Oncology”; slipping into my double layered blue gowns and sitting with other similarly attired women in the chilly radiation waiting room; trying to keep my legs from shaking with each creak of the door as I tensely anticipated my turn. How in the world did I get here?
But as I lay on the radiation table each day, face down, arms raised gripping the handles above me, two women manipulating me so that laser beams aligned perfectly across the five tattoos on my back – it felt all too real. Brazilian jazz played though the speakers—a sound incongruous with the environment I was in. I would try to distract myself by focusing on the picture of yellow tulips on the wall in front of me. Getting into position took longer than the treatment itself. The first few times — after the staff meticulously took down all the measurements and maneuvered me into the perfect position — I felt like bolting. Instead, I closed my eyes, recited Surah Fatiha, and clutched the black handles a little tighter. I felt something the first couple of times — a slight electric shock, a zinging sensation. Soon, I didn’t feel it any more. Perhaps I had gotten used to it; perhaps I wasn’t as acutely focused on feeling it.
Those seven weeks felt interminable; I thought they would never end, but they did. One year has passed and so far my bi-annual checkups have revealed only healthy cells. Alhumdulilllah. Often it takes a shock to the system to realign your priorities, adjust your perspective, and realize just how blessed you are. As I think about the impact that breast cancer has had on my life, I realize just how much it’s taught me about faith, gratitude, living life fully, taking control, and letting go. I’ll share some of these thoughts in the second part of this piece, and pray that I can stay faithful to these lessons.
Salma Hasan Ali is a Washington, D.C. based freelance writer, Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly, and Chief Inspiration Officer of MoverMoms, an NGO that promotes service.