Trigger Warning: this piece carries discussions on breast cancer, chemotherapy, stress, relapse, and death
Jab mujhay laykar ja rahay thay chemo ward mein, aisay lag raha tha keh tobah astagfar mauth kay moo mein lay kar ja rahay hain, jaisay examination daytay waqt wali feeling thee hai na.Humaira Kashif, Breast Cancer Survivor
In this exclusive for ‘Breast Cancer Awareness’ month, FUCHSIA interviewed 46-year-old Humaira Kashif who tested positive for breast cancer in September, 2020. This first-person account of her brutal battle makes one wonder, how many Humairas will it take to encourage mammogram awareness and appreciation?
Prior to your breast cancer diagnosis, what was your level of awareness regarding it?
I just knew that one should check themselves after their period – my General Physician (GP) had told me and I’d also seen this on the TV.
Prior to your diagnosis, were you one to shy away from a mammogram?
Not really. My first mammogram dates back to 1996 when I was 20 – after my son’s birth. I used to live in Pakistan at that time; my breasts felt really lumpy and I thought they were hormone lumps. I was afraid, so I showed myself to a doctor in Lahore who recommended I get a mammogram.
Then in 2015, my breasts started feeling really lumpy again and I felt pain in my right breast upon touching it. Naturally, I went to the doctor, but he said it was at the back of my head. I joked, “breast cancer toh nahi hai? She said “no no, they’re hormonal issues, monthly hothay hain.” Most women get lumpy breasts before their period, but let’s get a mammogram done anyway.” At that time, my results were good to go, but it was the first time I understood how necessary it is for women to check their breasts and underarms for lumps post periods.
Then, towards March 2020, while I was going for Umrah, I took quite a few medicines to ward off my periods and I noticed my breasts getting lumpier, but also very itchy. Upon going to the doctor, I remember joking again, “cancer toh nahi hai? ” She said, “nahi yeh nahi hotha itching pur.” At that time, there was no sign: no redness, no pain, no flaky skin, nothing. But then my breasts became progressively lumpier and I complained about how I hadn’t gotten my periods in over 6 weeks. Even then, upon getting my lumps checked again, no cancer was detected.
Can you describe the events that led to your diagnosis?
On September 2, 2020, I touched my breasts while sleeping and felt a lump – chota sa. I ran to the doctor because my head was full of cancer scares. She checked me and said it’s a hard lump – irregular shape. So I searched up the internet. My friends and family kept telling me it won’t be cancer, but I kept checking my lump till my mammogram was due.
Would you be comfortable sharing what was going on in your head at this time?
I blamed myself for stressing so much which led to this – I was worrying too much about my kids. I’d stay up all night, crying, worrying about my kids’ grades or their friends. My son always joked that I’d have sugar and become diabetic because of the amount of stress I took. Somehow, I had also started consuming a lot of sugary foods a year prior to my diagnosis, and my son Hassan also told me that “in sab khanon ki wajah say cancer jaisay ganday cells paida hothay hain.”
So I started blaming myself, since we don’t have a family history, and this I later discovered – during chemotherapy, that breast cancer usually affects indiscriminately – girls of all ages, 19,20, even nursing mothers, you name it, were testing for breast cancer, .
Following the diagnosis for breast cancer, what was your recommended procedure?
Initially, the doctor reassured me that my breast cancer had been caught really early and that I mustn’t worry. It’s treatable and curable. The first thing in my head was stressing about chemo, but she claimed they couldn’t ascertain the procedure until a discussion with an oncologist. But she did say that a lumpectomy was the first thing on the roster followed by radiation.
Six weeks after my lump had been removed, towards October 27, the doctor congratulated me; the lump hadn’t spread at all – not in my underarms or tissue so that was a relief. So the doctor rendered me cancer-free. But then she said, there’s one issue: you still have to go through chemotherapy. I pleaded against it, but she said my cancer cells were very aggressive and I couldn’t afford the risk.
So then On November 9, I had an appointment with a breast cancer surgeon. We decided upon 7 chemo sessions spaced by 3 weeks, but a very heavy dosage was involved. Then we reconsidered and concluded upon 12 shorter sessions that we’d wrap up within 12 weeks. Following 3 months of chemo, there was a 3-week break and then we dived into 10 days of radiation.
What was your experience with chemotherapy?
But chemo was okay – horrible, but surprisingly okay because prior to my treatment I’d been prescribed a lot of anti-sickness tablets and steroids so they had helped a lot. I ended up being the lucky few who didn’t vomit during chemo. But I did have diarrhoea, blood-like pimples growing on my scalp – you can still see their marks. I didn’t have a urine infection, but I felt like my pubic area would explode. Then again I knew people had it way worse, so I was still grateful.
Yes, radiation wasn’t painful but because of both chemo and radiation, I lost my eyebrow hair, my nails became blue, even my skin paled and became near blue. But 2-3 months into this, my skin, hair, and hands got better. However, because my tumour has no set medicine, every 3 weeks I am to get injections on my thighs – we alternate the thigh each time. This is a prescription of 18 injections and I am to get my 16th shot on Friday, October 16 – what an irony. Its major symptom is heart damage so every 4 months I have a heart check-up. But I’m glad my dosage will end before my son’s birthday dated November 26.
Do you think Covid-19 impacted your fight with cancer?
Haan. Coronavirus nay bohot barbady kee thee.
One of my operations was delayed because I had tested positive prior to it and the surgeons refused to operate on me. I screamed and cried; I begged them to operate on me in case my cancer spreads. Covid-19 messed things up completely. “Aur, jab mujhay laykar ja rahay thay chemo ward mein, aisay lag raha tha keh tobah astagfar moth kay moo mein lay kar ja rahay hain, jaisay examination daytay waqt wali feeling na? ” I wished for my husband and kids, any of them, to accompany me during my chemo sessions, but I was alone.
Post treatment, what’s on your mind now?
I fear for my kids, especially my daughter. Maryam now has a double history of breast cancer – one from her dad’s side, considering his elder sister had suffered but survived, and one from my end.
What do you think people should learn from your story?
Get yourself checked – breast cancer is curable early on! But if you shy away from checkups, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Secondly, don’t stress – of course, this is easier said than done, and I should probably practise what I preach, but the threat of relapse is real.
Apparently, however, as per my reading, relapse rates are higher in those who have family histories of fighting this disease, then again, however, cancer is unpredictable so is relapse.
Lastly, here are a few resources available to those with breast cancer or its scares in Pakistan, they include: Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Pink Ribbon Pakistan, and KASH Welfare Trust.