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‘You are not invincible’: UAE breast cancer survivor urges all women to get screened

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A breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease in her mid-20’s urged young women to do regular checks and screening as she spoke about her ten-year-recovery battle.

Beauty entrepreneur, Anisha Oberoi, founder of Secret Skin, said she was in the prime of her business career when she found a lump in her breast.

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“I had quit my fashion job with Ermenegildo Zegna to go to INSEAD - the most prestigious MBA program in the world and had booked my flights,” she told Al Arabiya English.

However, that dream was put on hold after a biopsy revealed she had breast carcinoma.

“In early-2010 I was misdiagnosed twice due to two senior gynecologists who were not trained in oncology to pick up on suspicious growths (as it often was, a decade ago) and told to watch my period for the next few cycles, assuming it was a fibroid,” she said. “It appeared as a soft pea-sized lump on my right breast that distended when touched.”

“Within months it grew harder and by July an FNAC (fine needle aspiration cytology procedure) revealed that it was intermediate stage breast carcinoma.”

Oberoi said she was stunned by the news.

“I was terrified and stunned as I had no family experience with the disease and very little support existed back then in terms of counselling for young people.”

“But like anything else in my life, I treated it like a time-bound project with INSEAD being the end goal. I stubbornly worked backwards from my dream and that kept me alive.”

Oberoi underwent aggressive treatment, including surgery to remove the lump, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and a few months of extensive radiation.

“I lost my lashes, brows, hair and put on weight due to steroids,” she recalled. “They found that the cancer had reached my lymph nodes and my armpit had to be scooped out of its nerve endings.”

“They took a flap from the muscle from my back to replace the loss of skin when the lump was removed, and this caused me to lose sensation in the right side of my body.”

“My arm was like a broken wing full of scar tissue that had to be opened out with regular physiotherapy to restore movement.”

Oberoi said she experienced extreme fatigue and night sweats and her period was artificially put on hold due to the pathology revealing that the cancer was hormone-driven.

Pink ribbon for an awareness of Breast Cancer Day, October, 1, 2020. (Unsplash, Angiola Harry)
Pink ribbon for an awareness of Breast Cancer Day, October, 1, 2020. (Unsplash, Angiola Harry)

The radiation came to an end in June and by August Oberoi had moved to France to continue her studies.

“It was an effort to start a new life but with a suitcase full of injections that I need to administer to my stomach at a French clinic as part of hormone therapy.”

“During this period, I felt ugly, impotent, vulnerable but I also felt hopeful of a better future. My seat at school was waiting for me.”

Oberoi is currently in remission but still undergoes “anxiety-ridden medical checks” every three months.

“Anything suspicious has to be poked and prodded to ensure I’m safe but I’m grateful for advancements in the medical field, and for the support I have from my partner and doctors in UAE,” she said.

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month is marked during October, Oberoi said she wants to give a timely reminder for all women to get checked if they notice anything irregular in their breasts and to undergo regular screening.

“We are not invincible, and it can happen to anyone. The important part is to stay on top of your own health and prioritize your emotional and mental wellness at all costs.”

COVID-19 led to screening delay

Earlier this month Al Arabiya English revealed how women in across the UAE delayed vital breast cancer screening during the COVID-19 pandemic in a “concerning phenomenon” that led to a spike in cases across the country.

October marks the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and experts are reminding that early detection brings a higher chance of recovery.
Breast cancer has four stages and catching it at the first stage means the chance of survival is between 95 and 100 percent.

However, doctors in the UAE said screening is well below pre-pandemic levels as women missed routine appointments and avoided health settings over the fear of COVID-19 meaning they missed vital lifesaving treatment.

Prof. Humaid al-Shamsi, a consultant in oncology and medical oncology director at VPS Healthcare, has noticed an increase in breast cancer cases across the UAE as a result.

“October, also known as Pink Month, is the month to increase awareness about breast cancer, which is one of the most common cancers worldwide,” he told Al Arabiya English.

“Since the pandemic, we are noticing an increase in the number of patients presenting with breast cancer. This means they are delaying their visit to the doctor over fears about COVID-19.

“We are very concerned about this phenomenon.”

The doctor said he wants to highlight the importance of being aware of any symptoms like new lumps in the breast, changes to the nipples, and pain in the breast area.

According to the World Health Organization, close to 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer and over 685,000 died worldwide in 2020.

Read more:

COVID-19 left women delaying vital breast cancer screening, treatment: UAE experts

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: UAE survivors say don’t delay medical help

‘Alarming’ number of young people in UAE, Saudi Arabia diagnosed with cancer: Study

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