Breast Cancer: A personal account of cancer

I was 17 years old when I learned that my mother, Luma, had stage 4 breast cancer. Though it was over a decade ago now, learning that my mother had this disease felt like being hit by a truck. Just moments before hearing the news, I was worrying about what most high school students worry about—school, grades, friends—but that all changed.

The diagnosis carried with it suffocating feelings of anxiety that comes with the unknown nature of the disease: what does it mean? Is it a death sentence? Will the disease spare the person I love?

One in eight women will get breast cancer—the leading cause of death among women—in their lifetime. It is rare to find anyone that has not been touched in some way by the dreadful disease.

My father and my two younger sisters tried desperately to make sense of it all as well—analyzing each test result and doctor’s report—hoping that we had answers where there sometimes were none. Hopeful scans and X-rays turned to biopsies and major surgeries followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

All along, we saw my mother’s hair come and go and energy levels quickly deplete. My mother, a pharmacist and a consummate professional, would get her therapies and go back to work—often on the same day.

My parents—both from the Iraq—made the choice to move their family to the United States for a better life. Creating a life in a country that is not native to you was a hard transition. But, they accomplished it through consistent hard work—a work ethic that did not waver, even during illness. My parents fostered a home filled with love, laughter and adventure, even when the future of my mother’s health was not always clear.

Dealing with my mother’s diagnosis was a family effort. My mother lost her mother at a fairly young age to breast cancer as well, but, in the Middle East, especially back then, the disease was not often discussed. My sisters and I heard stories from my mother about our grandmother, and it always made me sad to know that she was someone we would never know.

My mother never once revealed what a toll the repeated rounds of radiation and chemotherapy had taken on her physically, and the emotional toll of having all that is stereotypically feminine stripped from you. Days worrying about having a bad hair day now seemed laughably trivial. My mother had beautiful, curly hair. But after losing it, she learned to make do. Once it started growing back, even the shortest bit, she decided to dye it red and set her own trend—be adventurous with the cards that she was dealt.

My mother had a loving spirit and a quiet sense of mischief. She made friends with the nurses that administered the chemotherapy and would come home and share their stories about their families and their lives with us. As a pharmacist, she often saw people at their most vulnerable—either sick themselves, or dealing with the illness of a loved one. Though she was dealing with a serious disease and a daunting diagnosis, she selflessly cared for others without ever feeling sorry or pity for herself.

My father never once skipped a chance to compliment my mother on how beautiful she was or to crack a joke to lighten the mood on a tough day. It was that mindset of love, respect and friendship that carried my parents through their 25 year marriage.

It was that spirit that is the silver lining to the experience we went through as a family. Following her and my father’s lead, my family took the disease in relative stride. We still lived a normal, full, life—having regular family dinners and taking trips together. It seems my mother had no other option than to stay strong. She was fighting daily to beat the odds while also being a good wife, attentive mother, and dutiful professional.

Through these intensive treatments, my mother’s cancer went into remission. After five years of remission, the cancer came back—first in her lymph nodes, then, in her brain, then in her lungs. Seven years after my mother had been first diagnosed with cancer, she passed away.

Loss is a strange thing—particularly when it is due to illness. I am often asked how I, and my family, were able to cope. My family echoes similar sentiments: We miss her every day, but if the alternative was to have her continue to battle the insufferable disease, then, we would rather that she is in peace.

My story—a mother suffering through the disease, daughters without their mother, a spouse without his match—unfortunately, is all too common. My two sisters and I were not only left with the shock of our loss, but also a daunting feeling. Our mother passed from breast cancer, as did our maternal grandmother. Are we statistically guaranteed to also get the disease?

Women with hereditary breast cancer, which can be measured by taking the BRCA gene mutation testing, have up to a 65 to 85 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, according to Dr. Claudine Isaacs, an oncologist and breast cancer specialist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

However, not all women who have a history of breast cancer in their family will test positive in the BRCA test.

There are several risk factors associated with breast cancer:{ }
• Earlier age at first period (before the age of 12)
• Having your first child after the age of 30
• Minimal or no breastfeeding after giving birth
• Going through menopause at a later age
• The use of hormonal replacements post-menopause
• Alcohol consumption (consuming alcohol more than 3-4 times a week)
• Being overweight, not exercising
• Gender (breast cancer happens 100 times more often in women than in men)
• Race (it is diagnosed more often in Caucasian women than women of other races)
• Dense breast tissue{ }

While several cannot be avoided, there are key lifestyle changes that can be addressed that can lower your risk of developing the disease:{ }

• Get at least six hours of sleep a night (research shows less leads to low-grade inflammation, and inflammation can lead to cancer)
• Keep in consultation with your doctor about the need for mammograms and early screening
• Limit your alcohol intake to 3-4 times a week
• Engage in moderate exercise (the equivalent of 3 hours of brisk walking a week, at minimum)
• Maintaining a normal body weight
• Breast feeding after giving birth
• Exercise caution and discretion with CT scans

Of course, there is also strong medical{ }{ }backing behind{ }several medical interventions for those that have been proven to be at high-risk for breast cancer. There has been strong evidence behind drugs Tamoxifen or Raloxifene for breast cancer risk reduction for women determined to be at high risk, Dr. Isaacs said.

It is hard not to have my family history of breast cancer linger in the back of my mind. I think those concerns will always be there. But we can take all the precautionary measures possible to stay healthy and lessen our risk. Research and treatments are advancing rapidly and are a source of so much hope.

Living life in fear of what may come is no way to live at all. I’d be remiss if I didn’t live my life to the fullest—if nothing else, in memory of my loving mother and all those that were lost to this disease too soon.

Yasmeen Alamiri is a senior web editor at ABC7.