So who's afraid of cancer?

By Afia Salam

Four people give an inspiring account of their battle against cancer. Meet Afia Salam, editor, The Cricketer, Gul Hameed Bhatti, editor, The News, Faisal Sher Jan, CEO NTM and actress Yasmin Ismail.

"Not me, at least not any more. Cancer does not hold the same dread that it did when I was just a bystander. Two of my mother's sisters and two of my nieces had gone down fighting cancer. That's why, the moment I felt a lump, I was sure it would be malignant.

The biopsy simply confirmed my suspicion. While I was reading the report, I kept thinking, "I don't want my mother to know!" She had been through three major surgeries, eight sessions of chemotherapy, and had suffered a relapse after a three-year remission. I was afraid my diagnosis would be the last straw.

It was then that I began 'operation deception.' My husband, a cousin and my boss, Riaz Mansuri, conspired with me. Mansuri called up my mother to say that I had to go out of the city on some cricket assignment and my cousin successfully convinced her to spend the weekend together with my children at his place.

During my stay at the hospital, Mansuri kept my mother posted about my 'travel plans!' Dr. Kishwar Nazli gave me the confidence to cope with the surgery in a manner so that upon my return home, neither my mother nor my children had a clue as to what I had been through.

It was only when I visited Dr. Imtiaz Malik, that I learned the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. I was to undergo chemotherapy which would result in complete hair loss among other related side-effects. I knew I had to come clean with my mother.

Confiding in my mother gave me the support of dua (prayers) along with her dawa (medicines). My eldest child was just nine, the middle one eight and the youngest one only three. I tried making them independent of me, in case they had to fend for themselves. But with the support of my friends and family, coupled with an excellent level of medical care, I came to grips with the situation. My mother had done it earlier and I wasn't about to give up now.

My doctor made it very clear that it was possible to function normally, as long as I didn't take unnecessary risks. That was all I needed to hear when I came out of the hospital, I firmly took over the wheels from my driver as I used to before my treatment started. And that set the pattern for the rest of my life.

I suffered severe side-effects from my chemo. I felt nauseous. The bitter taste in my mouth put me off food. My nails turned black, my skin darkened and my toes pained so much that wearing shoes became a problem. At one point, I got blisters in my mouth and all I could consume was milkshake for 10 days. Talking was extremely painful so I had to communicate with a pad and a pen. But I went to the office as usual and the magazine came out regularly. I even went to Lahore for some interviews, despite the pain. It was these achievements that gave me the confidence to do more. The most difficult thing for me to come to terms with was hair loss. I had knee length hair, which I now miss despite the compliments on my 'chic' new short style.

Two years down the road and I am doing everything I did before my brush with cancer. However, I am wary of making any long-term commitments lest I am not able to fulfill them. I have become rather possessive of my time and I prefer to stay home once the children return from school.

I am grateful to God for the support of my friends and family who have been extremely positive throughout my illness. Not everyone has that advantage and that is why there is a need to organise formal support groups who can counsel people diagnosed with cancer. We must put the fear of cancer behind us, and be more positive about it. I do fear that some day my cancer might return, but I refuse to spend my life in dread."

Gul Hameed Bhatti, editor, The News, is a heavyweight in the cricketing fraternity. About three years ago, his world turned topsy turvy with the sudden death of his wife, Razia Bhatti, founding editor of Newsline. It took Gul quite a while to come to terms with this loss. And just when he thought things were worse, life took another tragic turn: while he had no apparent health problems, there seemed to be a growth at the side of his jaw that started to swell.

"For six months, the doctor kept me in the dark. They couldn't figure out whether this growth was serious. And this despite the fact that I had been going to the head of surgery of the country's top hospital. In fact I had been told emphatically that the tumour was benign.

When I was referred to ENT surgeon Musheer Hussain, the first thing he asked me for was the report of the biopsy. He was extremely surprised to learn that none had been carried out. He was extremely surprised to learn that none had been carried out. He sent me off for a biopsy. When the report came, he tried to break it to me gently saying that it was positive, and that the tumour was indeed malignant.

After the surgery, I was told that the cancer had spread to the shoulder area and they had 'cleaned' it all up. The oncologists agreed that I needed no chemotherapy, but only radiation, which Imran Khan insisted I get done at the SKMT hospital.

This was a big decision, for with Razia no longer there, it meant leaving my children, Sara and Kamil alone. It also meant being away from my job for well over five weeks. Our maidservant stayed with the children throughout, while the management at the newspaper told me to simply concentrate on getting well.

SKMT in Lahore was remarkable. I went for radiation five days a week, and came twice to Karachi for the weekend to be with the children. After the radiation sessions ended, I couldn't talk properly for days. The pain-killers didn't seem to work and I had problems sleeping on my back. However, I knew this was a temporary condition which would go away Ð and it did.

Though there were no formal support groups, my son, especially, was a real help, and for the sake of my children, I put on a positive front. Am I afraid the cancer might return? Well, if it does, I will get it treated again. The only thing that worries me is that my children will be left alone if something happens to me but if God wants me to be there for them, I'll be there."

Faisal Sher Jan seems to be in a perpetual hurry. Meeting deadlines is what life is all about, and he isn't about to miss any just because he has cancer. Most of his professional problems surfaced about the same time as his disease, and he had to battle on two fronts at the same time..

"When I went in to have a check-up for a stomach problem, I knew it might be cancer, for my father had it. In fact, we have a history of colon cancer. The oncologist was very blunt and made no promises. But he did tell me that I had to undergo chemotherapy.

I wasn't really afraid because of the tremendous support from my family and friends. It helped me to be a very positive attitude about everything and just eight days after my surgery, I was battling in the court for NTM. In fact, I had a lesser reason to be negative about it than my mother, who had to bear the trauma of seeing not just me, but my two sisters, diagnosed with the disease at about the same time. If anyone should have cracked up, it should have been her but she has been strong and calm throughout and this helped us to be strong too.

If I hadn't been diagnosed with cancer, probably my sister's cancer would not have been detected either. She went for her check-up after my diagnosis, and was detected positive. We've had a tough time as a family. A few months later, my elder sister too had to undergo surgery. It's having the right mental attitude that has helped us through.

My treatment has been interrupted because the drugs were affecting my heart, but I am going about my job as usual. My sister goes to Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital to counsel patients who are to undergo a colonoscopy, for that is a traumatic procedure. Talking to her has helped many overcome their fear.

We have good doctors who can help the patients keep a positive attitude and live life to its fullest."

Yasmin Ismail is a name synonymous with television and stage. A gifted director, Yasmin's Grip's theatre plays have provided some delightful moments for children and adults. Cancer stalked Yasmin stealthily, for ovarian cancer does not really have any symptoms...

"My first reaction was of disbelief ... after all, cancer is a dreaded disease. I was apparently very healthy, and was working quite normally. However, I was having a lady coming in to massage me because my stomach felt distended. After that, everything happened so quickly that I had no time to think or react. My tumour burst and the liquid filled the entire stomach. The very next day they operated on me, and it was then that the doctors discovered that I had stage III cancer.

After the surgery, I had to undergo chemotherapy. It was quite a bad experience both emotionally and physically. Hair loss was tough to cope with, though, I did get around with wigs and even did plays wearing them. I reacted rather strongly to the chemo, for I felt miserable. With successive cycles, I lost interest in socializing.

But my commitments pushed me to meet deadlines. Once I was in bed feeling quite ill and the entire cast of a play we were staging for Civil Hospital was sitting in my bedroom rehearsing for it. Since it was for a worthy cause, I made the effort.

While the going was tough, it helped to talk about it. I know there are a number of people who hide it, and I wonder why. the wealth of support I received by being open about it is unforgettable. Being a known face, I came across so many people who could come up and say they included me in their prayers. It was really a wonderful feeling.

Soon after my chemo, my mother too was diagnosed as having breast cancer. Despite knowing that it ran in the family, I was not mentally ready when I suffered a relapse.

At present, I am not cancer-free, but I am feeling much better. And this is why you see me directing and acting in plays. I do believe that one shouldn't be afraid of treatment. the doctors are there, the treatment is there, and people with cancer must shed their fear. That is the only way to overcome cancer."


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