As Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues, it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge the human side of this disease. In the past, we’ve shared an at-home health check recommended by a leading gynecologist and spoken to a variety of experts about what causes cancer and what you can do to prevent it – but we’ve saved the best for last. Here, we speak with three breast cancer survivors who have gone on to inspire those around them in their own unique ways. Here are their stories.
Anisha Oberoi, Entrepreneur
For clean beauty junkies across the region, the name Anisha Oberoi needs no introduction. For others, here’s a brief one. The Indian entrepreneur founded Secret Skin in February 2020 with a commitment to carrying brands that are ethically sourced, responsibly curated, and cruelty-free – Rahua and Grown Alchemist included. As for what prompted the birth of this sustainable beauty platform? Anisha fought breast cancer back in 2010 and experienced firsthand just how challenging it can be to find clean beauty brands, especially as the combination of chemotherapy and heavy medication shattered her self-esteem. “I had to relook at everything, including what I considered were standards of my beauty – my hair, my lashes, my brows, everything fell, so I had to look in the mirror and accept who I was. I had to look at that girl in the mirror and say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ That’s something I wish I knew back then.”
While the rollercoaster of emotions between diagnosis and recovery can’t be easy to articulate, Anisha does so beautifully. “I said my life cannot be all about this, so I looked out with childlike wonder, like a kid at a windowpane. I asked, ‘What else is the world going to bring me?’ And I wish I knew back then that it was going to be incredible because I wouldn’t have been so scared.” She says that while stubbornness, the will to stay alive, and her dream to pursue an MBA at INSEAD collectively kept her going, the reactions to her resilience brought with them moments of impostor syndrome. “At one point, you feel impotent and ugly, with steroids fattening you up. And you’re having issues with your digestive system and your drainage, and you’re unable to imagine anything different. It defeats your spirit.” Anisha recalls needing her doctor’s permission to join friends headed to a wedding in Jaipur by bus after her third round of chemotherapy and, in case you’re wondering, she was the last one on the dance floor.
“My head was shorn, I was wearing a sari, and I was living life. But I couldn’t always be that shiny beacon of light because there would be times that I’d feel defeated and my pillow case would be covered in night sweats and I wouldn’t be able to eat because anything could trigger an infection. I remember feeling useless and incomplete. I felt my life had been cut short.” Today, as Anisha is 12 years into remission and celebrating the second anniversary of Secret Skin, she has a few observations when it comes to the region’s interest in all things clean beauty. “Other parts of the world, like the UK and the US, are a lot more evolved because their journey with clean beauty started a lot longer ago, which is a bit ironic because no one spends more on personal care and beauty than this region. What’s more, about 67% of people who shop are millennials and they’re living online, so I’m a bit surprised that the movement arrived late. I’m also glad because it makes us the first mover.”
Anisha says finding toxin-free products when she moved to Dubai three and half years ago came with challenges – exorbitant shipping charges and customs duties included. “With everything coming back to global footprint, I felt there was a huge opportunity here. The customer today is becoming smarter with regard to what goes into their products, and the pandemic has only accelerated the emphasis on clean living. More people are engaging in skincare rituals rather than makeup, so it was the right time for us to launch Secret Skin.” The ambitious entrepreneur admits that she struggles to slow down, describing this past one year as equal parts rewarding and terrifying. “I force myself to take breaks. It’s really important for my mental health because that aspect has suffered since I’m a new entrepreneur. I’m a personality type that always needs to keep the action going, and this was very prevalent when I was sick – well-meaning relatives kept telling me that I should take a step back, relax, and not pursue the ambitious career that I’ve always envisioned.”
But Anisha did exactly the opposite almost immediately post-recovery – she headed to a prestigious business school, moved countries, and accepted a job as one of the founding members of Amazon Fashion India. “It gave me wings. It was the biggest job I’d ever had, it anchored my resume, and it taught me everything I know that has enabled me to run Secret Skin the way we do.” Considering Anisha is both a survivor and savvy businesswoman, I can’t help but gauge her opinion of pinkwashing, a marketing tactic that admittedly irks me to no end. While I respect the role played by private entities in fundraising efforts, do we really need candles, cupcakes, and yoghurt containers in varying shades of Barbie pink? Anisha concurs.
“To be honest, I do know that come October, everybody will want to slap a pink ribbon everywhere. I think the intention is right, but you can’t do anything with good intentions unless you actually put something in motion. It’s great that you see it everywhere, but it’s so overused that it loses its credibility if not done right. And it’s not just a matter of it being done right – it’s also a matter of what else you are doing to carry it forward, how many lives you are touching, and how many changes you have created.”
Maruf Azimov, Model
I’d be remiss words if I didn’t acknowledge that breast cancer affects the lives of both men and women worldwide all year round – not just in October. Yes, it is rare, but men can get breast cancer, contrary to popular belief. And while it is most common in older men, it can occur at any age – just ask Maruf. The model, brand ambassador, and winner of the Mr. Dubai 2019 title was only 24 when he was diagnosed. Today, he’s vocal not only about erasing the stigma around a man battling ‘a woman’s disease’, but also the importance of regular health check-ups. “There are people who can’t even grasp the concept of male breast cancer,” he says. “Yes, there were times I felt shy or ashamed, but it is on the rise – not just breast cancer, but cancer in general. That’s why my message is to just go for a check-up if something feels different in your body, whether you’re a man or a woman. Don’t waste time feeling ashamed in front of anyone because you deserve to be healthy. Check-ups are easy and affordable. The alternative isn’t.”
Maruf is quick to admit that men are a lot less likely to seek professional help for things like depression and anxiety. He says that while his doctor did recommend speaking to a therapist, he chose to carry the burden all alone for four years. His reason? Family. “I was the only one in my family who was working at the time, and I just couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone – not my wife, not my parents. Besides, they’ve already given me everything and I didn’t want to see them suffer,” he explains. With Maruf deciding to tackle the illness on his own, a friend recommended that he move from his hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Dubai. “What’s worse is that an issue with my heart put my lump removal surgery on hold. Of course, I felt scared, but I worked on being happy for the sake of my family,” he says. With the encouragement of his doctor, Maruf channelled all his efforts towards his mindset, focusing on his health by way of staying positive. “I would repeat the words, ‘You are not sick’ to myself. I started enjoying my life – this is crucial if you want to improve your mental health.”
Naturally, there were good days and bad days. He says that in the absence of conventional approaches like therapy, spirituality got him through his darkest moments, reinforcing the countless studies concluding that spirituality and mental health are interconnected. “I still remember those early days, when I first moved to Dubai. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was working as a salesman during the day, and a security guard at night. I’d go to chemotherapy and check-ups between the two. It wasn’t easy. I’d survive on bread, tea, and instant soup. But the best doctor is God. I would sit at home, saying prayer after prayer, sharing all my problems with God. ‘I want to buy my father a car so he can work as a taxi driver and I want to help my two sisters get married, so please don’t take my life right now,’ I’d beg. And you know what? I managed to do it all and I’m here. I’m alive. So much good has happened because I believed,” he says, visibly emotional.
Today, a mere glance at his Instagram account speaks volumes of how far he has risen from his humble beginnings. In an industry fixated on physical perfection, Maruf has had to work much harder than his peers as a result of the fatigue, exhaustion, and weight loss that comes with battling cancer, but does so to set an example for his children. “My doctor thought I was crazy for going to the gym during chemotherapy, but I wanted to show my kids that their father is strong. I get that from my father. He has always been the strongest male presence in my life.” With over 316,000 followers on Instagram, Maruf is not immune to the occasional internet troll, but says that he posts photos of his physique to inspire others. “I’m not just flaunting my body. I’m encouraging others to fight harder, to fight for their lives. If I can do it after all that medication and all those treatments, anyone can.”
In retrospect, Maruf says he wouldn’t do anything differently when it comes to protecting his family members from his pain. “This disease is not like the others – it’s not like a broken foot. A small lump in the chest isn’t visible, so it’s not something your family will initially understand. My advice? Talk to yourself first. Tell yourself that you can do it, and everything will be okay. It’s the smiles of your family members that will get you through any hardship. You can tell them once you’ve started treatment and need their support, but why upset them from the very beginning? In fact, I didn’t even feel any pain until much later. I was told at my very first check-up that I had reached stage 2,” he recalls.
Selfless, family-oriented, and utterly devoted to his wife and three children, Maruf has a message for the caregivers of a male breast cancer patient – and it’s one that is echoed by others. “Don’t treat your loved one like a sick person,” he suggests. “Show them the same love and care as you would under normal circumstances.” He reveals that it was a long four-year period until he was allowed to undergo surgery in Uzbekistan and, this time around, he confided in his wife. Maruf was actually debating how to tell his mother about the severity of his condition, considering he didn’t receive his results for nearly a month. “All I kept thinking was, ‘How can I tell my mom if there’s no change? How do I tell a mother that her son may die?’ I felt I had to mentally prepare her for the worst.” That’s when his doctor called to give him the all-clear: “My boy, you are a winner.”
Tina Chagoury, Nutrition Consultant
The phrase ‘timing is everything’ comes to mind with speaking with Tina Chagoury. At a time when the world went into lockdown – i.e. panic mode – the multihyphenate was starting to celebrate a new lease on life. A nutrition consultant, a health behaviour educator, and a regular presence in local media, Tina was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2019, when she was on holiday in her native country of Lebanon. It goes without saying that the rest of the year brought with it countless challenges. Not only did she have to relocate herself and her two children to Beirut because of her treatment, but the October 2019 revolution also made getting to chemotherapy that much harder. “The roads were closed, there were ongoing riots,everything was a mess. The journey to the hospital usually takes 30 minutes, but we would leave two hours in advance,” she describes. Schools across Beirut also closed as a result of the revolution, forcing Tina to arrange remote learning – months before it became the ‘new normal’ for parents worldwide.
Fear and anxiety aside, Tina recalls feeling a deep sense of missing out. “In the deepest corners of my mind, there was a recurring thought: I’m missing out on my career. My field is rooted in ongoing learning, so if you’re off for a couple of months, you have to go back and do the training, apply for more CMEs, update your license. But then I’d remind myself to be patient. I’d tell myself everything will go back to the way it was.” As 2020 began, she gradually began planning for the year ahead – returning to a routine in Dubai and enrolling the kids in school again. And then coronavirus happened. As someone who was travelling back and forth between Beirut and Dubai, Tina was repeatedly advised to wear a mask as her immunity was still low post-chemotherapy, but she resisted. “On paper, my immunity looked fine. And with a bald head, no eyelashes, and no eyebrows, the last thing I wanted was one more thing that will make me stand out in a crowd.”
A complete lockdown was announced as Tina had two last rounds of radiotherapy left and distinctly remembers the surreal sight of an empty Sheikh Zayed Road. The unprecedented situation, she says, brought it with a sense of relief. “It felt like the stars were lining up because I wasn’t the only one missing out on life – no one was doing anything. I was happy because not only did I get to spend more time with the kids at home without the distractions of extracurricular activities, but it also gave me a chance to recharge. I was still recovering and very physically weak. Everyone around me was panicking, but I realised that it was a blessing for me. I actually felt very peaceful at the time. We were worried about the situation, of course, but I took that time to heal, to regain a bit of my health before returning to work in July.” Today, Tina is an adjunct instructor at Abu Dhabi University and sees clients at multiple clinics across Dubai. Considering she’s a licensed clinical dietician with over 20 years of experience, I can’t help but ask what has changed in terms of her approach to health and nutrition now that she’s in remission.
Interestingly, a period of retrospection has brought with it one big revelation. Besides changing her stance on supplements, she says it’s her approach to fitness that has shifted drastically. “Because of how I was taught, I believed that supplements were only needed in the case of a deficiency, but research made me realise their importance for optimal health. I still eat the way I used to, but I now know that I was overexerting my body,” she says. Tina reveals that she used to be an avid devotee of bikram yoga, practising it several times a week. “It was an addiction, but I noticed something during the last few months before my diagnosis: I was feeling more tired than usual during my sessions. Hot yoga is very hardcore and, even though I’d been practising yoga for 10 years at that point, I would leave midway through my sessions because of exhaustion. I was also doing HIIT three times a week. We all know how important exercise is, but what I’ve learnt is that over-exercising is incredibly inflammatory for women.” Her advice? Everything in moderation – exercise included.
Mental health, meanwhile, is high on Tina’s list of priorities, her sentiments towards faith echoing those of Maruf. “Everyone has a different approach to self-care, especially when post-traumatic stress strikes. I’m a very spiritual person and prayer has played a big role in my life, both during and after treatment. Also, your perspective changes when you come close to the idea of death. I end up depressed if I let myself think about the possibility of recurrence, and snap myself out of it by thinking, ‘I am alive and I am well. I am here today.’ That alone is a huge gift.” Tina looks back on the days in Beirut, when simply watching Netflix with her husband was all she wanted. “It might sound cliché, but when something like this happens, you live for those little things.” Tina admits that sporadic anxiety is inevitable and, at such moments, her self-talk is about not wasting the ‘now’ by making assumptions. “I wasted so much time worrying about the silliest things before my diagnosis,” she explains, encouraging everyone to have a plan and pursue what they’ve always wanted. “You don’t know what tomorrow holds, so follow your intuition and balance will set on its own.”
Another nugget of wisdom? Tina’s advice to the caregivers out there. “You should know that just your presence is valuable, it’s all she needs. You don’t need to go over and above, especially since you don’t want to make her feel any less capable.” She says caregivers often forget something important: “Yes, she might be physically and psychologically weaker, but mentally, she is still the same. She can handle her home, she can make family decisions. And unless she’s unwell because of the treatment, don’t make her feel like her life is on hold. There’s nothing more frustrating to a mother than to be told, ‘We’ll take care of your children, you just take care of yourself.’ Taking care of my children is a part of taking care of myself,” she asserts. Instead, Tina recommends simply being there, cracking jokes, baking a cake for the kids, or gifting something she’d like. “I met other women during treatment who felt the same way. ‘Come on, lock me into my room and run my life,’ we’d laugh. I may not have eyelashes or eyebrows, but I’m still the same person. We knew that it comes from a good place, though.”