Have you ever met someone who is overflowing with zest for life, all sunshine and takes on life’s challenges while riding a unicorn? Meet breast cancer survivor Hiba Abdul Rahman, a pixie beauty who is always all smiles and also happens to be in the business of making people happy – baking.
Hiba was only 25 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lump in her breast that had been there for a few years, but each time she got it examined by doctors, they would say it’s a cyst.
In 2015, she started bleeding from her nipple and immediately booked an appointment with a breast surgeon who then confirmed that it was breast cancer. She started her treatment right away and have finally reached the 5-year cancer-free mark.
Hiba shares with us her experience post-diagnosis and she has also so kindly given us a detailed guide on how you can cope with breast cancer diagnosis and treatments, or help someone come to terms with cancer.
It was a rollercoaster! I went through chemo, surgeries, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and hormone therapy which cause a lot of physical changes (hair loss, weight gain, loss of appetite, fatigue and memory loss) as well as some mental struggles. There were countless times where I would break down because I felt it was too much for me to handle.
The one thing that was tough for me to go through was the memory span and short attention span. I found myself repeating my words and asking people to repeat theirs ever so often simply because I couldn’t digest or remember what they were saying.
My family, my friends and my medical team. They were with me throughout my whole journey and have not left my side since. There was even a day/night rotation on who would stay with me in the hospital. It was like working on shift! Once I was back to my house, my mum would stay home during my treatment week to ensure I was okay and would make sure my meals were always freshly prepped.
I didn’t speak to a counsellor until 2018. I wanted to focus on seeing my treatments through first. Also, having a strong support system helps me keep my mental health at bay. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who love me and who I can talk to.
To be honest, the day I got the news, I just wanted to know “what’s next?” and I want to know everything! I think I was biting off more than I could chew because 2 days later it sunk in and I cried. So I took some time to discuss my options with my loved ones. Everyone was so helpful and gathered as much information as they could from people that they know or from the internet. This helped a lot, because it was overwhelming for me to search for information on my own.
My doctor told me I definitely had to have chemo, surgery and radiation therapy. I got a second opinion to confirm my diagnosis and my treatment options. I went to see a fertility specialist as well to discuss preservation of fertility. The good thing about my support system and my medical team is that I never felt forced to make a decision. I was given all this information, and the decision fell on me to do what was best for myself. It’s the reason I don’t regret every medical decision that I have made.
At that point in time, I didn’t know what I had to do or what decision was “right”. It was a lot of weighing the facts and taking risks. So I chose what I felt was right for me and made an informed decision.
My initial treatment regime was neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, surgery & radiation therapy (in this order). I was actually excited to go for chemo for some strange reason! I think it’s because I’ve always been into medical TV shows and was just curious as to how I would react to it. That excitement was pretty short lived because on the night of my first infusion, I told my family I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was groggy, nauseated and I could barely open my eyes. I didn’t have the stomach to eat anything. It was horrible. I went home and I didn’t even have the strength to walk to my room. I could only stay up for 2 hours at a time and eat half of the portion I normally do. I couldn’t look at any screens because it would cause nausea. I think the only positive outcome during the first week of chemo was that I had food cravings. I distinctly remember asking my husband for a Crambo Chicken Sandwich from O’Briens and I finished the whole plate. Of course that was followed by fatigue, nausea and an early bedtime (7pm)!
Everyone has their own way of calming their nerves. For me, it was my little niece who was then about a year old, and prayer. I didn’t have the energy to pray standing up, so I’d have to pray sitting down. Sometimes I’d cry during prayer, because it’s one of those quiet times I have just to myself and God. Moving forward, my side effects became manageable because I would have the same side effects each cycle and it would happen at the same time. For example, my nausea would come around 7pm and I will make sure I have my dinner by 6pm to be able to sleep through my nausea.
When my chemo meds changed, there was less fatigue (which was great!) but a lot more pain. I was on a drug that went into my bones, which caused me to be in pain for 1.5 weeks from infusion. The only thing that helped alleviate the pain would be muscle gels (deep cold to be exact). Looking back at all this, I definitely couldn’t have done it on my own. Not just the physical challenges but the mental challenges too. It was hard having to go through the treatment and to force myself to rest, when my peers were moving forward in their lives and careers. Having to re-learn new things about myself is hard. I’m so grateful that I didn’t have to go through this journey alone.
The most common question that I get is “does chemotherapy hurt?” and “do you have to go through a machine during chemo?”. To clarify these two common questions:
- Pain during chemo really depends on the medication that a patient is on. Some meds cause pain, some cause hair loss, some cause weight gain. The most common misconception is that chemo patients have to be bald and skinny. This isn’t true. Treatment has come such a long way from what we see on the TV. Doctors and researchers have come up with treatments that don’t have severe side effects and/or have medication to make these side effects manageable. So as bad as my side effects were, I always kept in mind that it’s not as bad as for example, my grandmother’s time.
- Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often confused for one another. Radiation therapy is where the patient goes through the radiation machine and it shoots high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. It takes maybe 15-20 mins for 15 rounds. Think of it as a really bad sunburn. For me, my skin turned red, and then black and started peeling during the first 2-3 weeks. Thanks to the wonders of aloe vera gel, it didn’t hurt too bad! I would buy a bottle of unscented aloe vera gel and keep it in the refridgerator to use when necessary, just like I would if I had a sun burn.
Chemotherapy is given in the form of an intravenous infusion, the same way you would receive a drip when admitted. Some patients receive chemotherapy this way, while others have a port surgically implanted to ease the chemotherapy process. This prevents nurses and doctors from having to find a vein every time one goes through chemo. Because of the nature of chemotherapy drugs (killing both healthy and cancer cells), it can thin out or damage the vein. This then makes it more difficult to find the vein or causes inability to use the vein. Nurses would then have to find another vein and the process repeats itself.
To preserve the vein, a port is inserted to assist the chemotherapy process and bypass the need of having to poke a needle to a vein. There are many different types of ports/PICCs depending on the treatment plan and the patient. I used a chemoport for my infusions and just recently had it removed. My advice when choosing what to use, is to discuss with your surgeon and oncologist as well as to read up as much as you can before making a decision.
A mastectomy is the removal of all breast tissue. Surgeons can actually perform reconstructive surgery to preserve the shape of the breast. What this means is that after the removal of breast tissue, the surgeon can use either an implant or tissues from another part of the patient’s body to reconstruct the breast, while keeping the skin intact. This gives women the option of preserving the shape of their breast. There have been some women who have told me that they are afraid of having their breast removed, and are afraid of people judging them because it would be physically obvious. This gives them that peace of mind that they do not have to change how they look externally.
I did chemotherapy before my surgery in order to shrink my tumour first in order to get a cleaner margin during surgery. The surgeon also wanted to see whether I was eligible to do breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy) which is to remove a portion of my breast instead of removal of the whole breast.
I knew from early on that I wanted to do a mastectomy. The question was what kind of mastectomy I wanted – tissue flap or implant? In the end I decided on neither, and asked my surgeon to remove my whole left breast without reconstructive surgery. My surgeon was surprised, because reconstructive surgery is something most young patients would want to have. I didn’t want the hassle of staying in the OR longer than I needed so I actually said “Doc, I want ta surgery that would get me out of the OR the quickest”. I’m fine with having only one breast. It doesn’t make me feel less beautiful and it doesn’t make me any less of a woman. If anything, it makes me feel more like a woman than I ever did. I have never regretted my decision because it was my informed decision, not anyone else’s.
I have to emphasise on making an informed decision. It’s extremely important to discuss options with your surgeon and oncologist. My priority was saving my life first, aesthetics second. If a woman is given the green light to do a mastectomy with reconstruction, then by all means do so. It is okay for a woman to want to look and feel like herself post-surgery. It is okay for a woman to want or refuse reconstructive surgery. At the end of the day, whatever decision tjat needs to be made, make an informed one.
I’ve always been a positive person. So throughout treatment, I kept myself busy by geeking out and baking. I played games, I baked, I dressed up and even did henna on my head! I tapped into my childhood interests like painting and doing puzzles. I even celebrated the end of my treatment cycles. I also made sure to make my hospital room like home by bringing a Baymax doll to my treatments and bringing my own pillow. My sister even made a Batik hospital robe for me to wear in the hospital. All of this, added colour to my life and makes treatment all the more bearable.
I’ve just recently got a job as a baker. It’s definitely a career change from my pre-cancer days (I was in events). I’m learning to listen to my body and not over exert myself when it comes to my day-to-day. I’m thankful to have a boss and a team that’s understanding of that. I also take care of what I eat and have reduced eating processed foods. I go for counselling to take care of my mental health. I think the only area that I haven’t been disciplined with is exercise (sorry doc!). I also make sure to surround myself with good people, genuine people who want what’s best for me. Doing this has actually changed how I live my life and has made it so much better.