Chapter 1: My Breast Cancer Diagnosis and My Reaction
"I'm sorry, Zaheen, the biopsy results show cancer," said my physician. I went numb.
My physician held my hand as I asked him, "Are you sure?" He nods up and down with an empathetic look on his face. "It can't be, I'm so young. How can this happen?" I ask in shock.
"Zaheen, breast cancer is 90% curable with the proper treatments. Nowadays cancer is hitting any age and the good thing is you caught it. I will now refer you to the breast cancer program..."
As he kept talking and punching some information on his computer, my mind raced with a million thoughts and questions:
"How am I going to handle this, am I going to die?"
"What about Arissa (my 11-year old daughter then)?"
"How far has the cancer spread?"
"Zaheen," My physician taps me on my knee as though bringing me back from a bad nightmare, "it's going to be okay. If you need anything, just ask. We are here for you and I want you take it easy now," I could sense that he meant every word.
"What's the next step?" I ask.
"The next step is surgery so we can remove the tumor in your breast. However, the surgeon will first have a consultation with you."
"Great way to end the week and month!" I said sarcastically. It was Friday July 29 at 4 p.m.
As I stood up to leave, my physician got up too and asked, "You will tell your family today?"
I nod up and down feeling sad and yet anxious at the same time. Noticing my behaviour, my physician, who was also my neighbour and a friend for many years, hugged me reassuring that everything will be fine.
I broke down and started crying in his arms.
How I Found the Lump
On May 14th - two months earlier, I had just returned home from an amazing chapter meeting of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers and was getting ready to go to bed when I decided to check my phone messages one last time.
I scratched my right breast while checking my messages and all of a sudden, my finger landed on a pea-sized lump at the top of my nipple.
"What's this?" I said to myself. "Hmmm, maybe just a cyst. I"ll call the doctor's office tomorrow," and off I went to bed.
On May 17, I sat on the bed of one the associate doctor's office, since my family doctor was away, while he examined my breast. "Do you examine your own breasts?" he asked.
"Never, I only get it done when I come for my annual physical."
"Have you had a mammogram before?"
"No, I'm only 41 years old and I believe they don't start mammograms until after 50 years of age?"
"You have no history of cysts on your file. Is there any history of breast cancer in your family?"
"Yes, my aunt - my mother's sister," I replied.
"Let's schedule a mammogram and ultrasound for you, but they don't do it in town so you'll have to go to Leduc (25 minutes away)," he suggested.
On June 29th I brazenly went into the mammogram clinic with the thought, "It's not cancer, it will be a benign lump."
Mammograms are not fun as the breast is pulled like a rubber band and then squeezed flat like a slice of bread. It was during the ultrasound that I started to get worried as the technician was taking a long time to read my results. My worry turned to fear as she came in and asked if I could go for a biopsy next week.
"I can't, I'm flying to Kenya to see my family day after tomorrow and I'm back July 24."
"Alright, we've booked you for a biopsy first thing in the morning on July 25," she replied.
Can We Have a Code
In the evening of July 29 after getting my results from my physician, I was driving home with Arissa. I explained to her what had happened and she asked, "Are you going to die?"
"No, many women have been diagnosed with breast cancer but they have been treated and are still alive and well today," I re-assured her.
"Mom, I can't say the c-word, can we have a code name for it?"
"Of course we can and it will only be our secret. Have you thought of a code name?" I asked.
"How about strawberry?" she suggested.
"I like it!"
At the Surgeon's Office
"Zaheen, my name is Dr. Smith and I know this is a new journey for you but we're here for you and I can already see that you have great support," she said as she nodded toward my husband, Badur, and my daughter.
"Have you been told anything about the next steps?"
"I've been educated on what could happen, that is: surgery, possibly chemotherapy and radiation, but I've been told every case is different," I replied.
"That's correct. Prepare for your life to be disrupted for 4 to 6 months," Dr. Smith said apologetically.
"Did I hear that right?" I thought.
"First we will remove the tumor from your breast and this could be a lumpectomy (partial breast removal) or a mastectomy (full breast removal). Followed by 4-6 cycles of chemotherapy, then 5 weeks of radiation and finishing up with hormonal therapy," she rattled off.
"Whoa! Slow down - this is not what I was expecting!" I started feeling anxious.
"Wait a minute. Do I have to go through chemotherapy?" I asked.
"Your oncologist will decide that with you, but based on the fact that you are only 41 years old, there's some family history and the biopsy shows a grade 3 cancer, I believe you will be going through chemotherapy."
"Oh crap, I really don't want to go through this. Why did this happen to me!" I felt like screaming.
She went on to explain the difference between mastectomy and lumpectomy, and based on my biopsy and other assessments, we decided that I'd have the partial mastectomy.
During the whole time that we were visiting with the surgeon, my mother and sister in Kenya kept texting to find out what was happening.
Conversation with Mom
"Mom, I just finished at the surgeon's and they'll let me know next week on my surgery date," I told her over the phone just as we left the parking lot of Dr. Smith's clinic.
"Are you okay beta (my child)?"
"I wish you were here..." I started sobbing in the car while speaking to her on my smartphone.
"This is too much and I wasn't expecting chemotherapy. I don't want those drugs and I don't know how this is going to affect me. This is such a big change," I continued sobbing.
"Zaheen, cry and let it all out. You're lucky you have a life partner like Badur at your side. I wish I could be there, but due to my own health reasons, you know I can't travel that far," she said.
"I'm so happy that you all came down to Kenya last month to see me and we had so much fun - after 5 years! You got the chance to go on a speaking tour and I got to see you speak for the first time and I must say, you are not the same Zaheen from five years ago. I'm so proud to see how far you've come from the little girl who stuttered and couldn't speak, to a woman who is confident in her own skin and can stand her own ground," my mom said proudly.
"Zaheen, life is like a staircase. You are on a different step in your life at this time and you may stay there for a little bit but eventually you will take the next step. Sometimes you may fall back a few stairs but with family support you will climb back up."
Hearing my mother's words about how far I had come and having support around me helped calm down my nerves, but for the next two days, my mind was reeling with thoughts of WHY I got cancer and HOW I may have got it.
Finally, I just had to voice my thoughts out aloud.
Conversation with Spouse
"Badur, I need to talk and I'd like you listen first then help me sort out my thoughts," I almost pleaded.
He nods as he drove us home after visiting with his parents who live an hour away.
"These last two days, I'm getting irritated easily when someone complains about small things. I'm not easily irritated, but I feel like yelling at these people and telling them: SHUT UP! I don't want to hear about your silly little complaints when I'm dealing with something that is unknown and much bigger. Am I being selfish?" I asked.
"Not at all. It's normal for someone like yourself who has just been told that their life is about to change for the next 4-6 months. You have to make sacrifices and it's a big change."
"Okay. I've also been thinking about why I got cancer when I don't smoke, I don't drink alcohol, I eat very healthy, and for goodness sakes, we own a wellness centre - we preach about health and wellness. So why me?" I ask with emotion and tears welling up in my eyes.
"We don't know what causes cancer. Even the surgeon said that 1 in 9 women will end up having breast cancer and they still don't know the cause. What I do know is this - because you're healthy, you will heal faster after your surgery and after your chemotherapy treatments. Does that make sense?" he asked.
I nod my head up and down as I look at him in awe because not only did he make me feel better and hear me out, he just completely reframed the situation by telling me to be in control of what I already knew.
Accept and Talk About it
It was at that point I decided to accept my diagnosis and be open about it. I quickly realized that many people close to you feel very awkward because they don't what to say when they hear that someone has cancer. They either start by saying, "I-m so sorry to hear that..." or they don't ask at all because it's the bad C-word and expect the person who has cancer to bring it up or feel that the person doesn't want to talk about it.
In my opinion, saying sorry feels like a death sentence. Instead, I'd prefer family and friends start with the following sentence:
"I heard you are battling breast cancer. How are you handling it?"
Badur, Arissa and I decided that I wasn't going let cancer define me, because this disease was not going to stop me from being who I am, it was no going to stop me from living my life and the more I accepted my diagnosis and talked about my journey, the more others around me would feel comfortable in treating me the same rather than walking on egg shells.
I speak to audiences on the topic of RESILIENCE and I call myself a resilience champion. I had come to a point in my life where I was required to work my resilience muscle more than ever before.
I was allowing myself to play victim in my own mind and was giving this disease power by second guessing myself. I even blamed myself at one point for attracting cancer into my life because I was overworking between September and December of 2015 and not eating supper, but just a protein bar.
It's normal to have feelings of anger, guilt, sadness and anxiety. This makes us human, but as long as you don't drown yourself in those feelings.
Embracing the Journey
Resilience is not about being tough on the outside and hiding behind a facade. It's about coping through adversity with a positive attitude. It's about embracing the journey by planning how you'll tackle the obstacles. It's about tapping into your support system so they can lift you up when you are down.
I decided to stop analyzing and resisting, and instead embraced this journey by sharing my learnings through my blog, Facebook Live videos and my speeches. I didn't care what others thought because this was my journey not theirs. These were my teachings where I was guiding others through my own mess, but turning it into a positive message of hope and inspiration.
At one point I asked my mother if what I was doing was appropriate. She replied, "The more we accept and talk about our issue, the better we heal. Isn't this the same thing that you did with your speech impediment? The more you shared your story about your speech impediment and the more you spoke in public, the less it bothers you?"
When you resist and fight against something, you'll never find peace with what you're battling. In fact, we create negative energy that harbours more negative experiences.
When you accept and embrace the diagnosis, a part of you starts creating a healing journey where you'll find that instead of dreading surgery or treatment, you'll feel in control of your surroundings, your attitude and your behaviour.