Fighting for her life, with a smile

Lara is the first person who crossed my mind when I decided to have the “Amazing Women” category on my blog, Women Rhapsodies. It is meant to tell inspiring stories, about real women we encounter every day. I’ve been on the other side of cancer twice. Once with my mother, lost when I was 16. Once with my boyfriend at the time, won when he was 25. I’ve never had the chance to ask either of them how it felt. I know how the other side feels. But I’ve never had the chance to ask the person who actually has cancer how it feels.

Anyway, this story isn’t about me. It’s about Lara. So let me introduce you.

“You can ask me anything” she says, lying back on her couch after a long day at work. “I am very open about it.” I smile, getting ready to jot down her story, eager to know actually. We’re on Skype — modern interviews. Or conversations, I should say. “Let’s start at the beginning,” I say. “How you found out…”

She laughs. “It’s a long story.”

The weird lump

It was Dubai, 2010. Lara was 25 years old. She had great job at an advertising agency. A workaholic, as she called herself. She had a lot of friends, a beautiful apartment. And a weird lump in her left breast. But then she touched her right breast, and felt like there was the same thing. Nothing, she imagined. But 3 weeks later, lying on the beach with her roommate/best friend, her breasts flat down on the sand, she showed her the lump. And Sarah freaked out. “We need to go get this checked,”she told her. She took an appointment for her at the American Hospital, for the next day. Lara didn’t want to go. She had a huge presentation, she couldn’t miss a few hours of work. But Sarah insisted. And so they went.

They met with the Gynaecologist who felt the lump, told them it was nothing, she could leave it or take it out if it was bothering her, but it was up to her — no big deal. He didn’t ask for an echo, he didn’t seem worried in the least. But Sarah was worried, or at least, unconvinced. “Let’s get an echo since we’re here,” she told Lara, who was anxious to get back to work. The hospital was far, she knew she would never come all the way back here, so she might as well get it done. After she did, the radiologist told her she should get a mammogram. That’s when Lara started to worry a little. After the mammogram, the radiologist asked her into a little room “Come my dear” she told her. Lara went it alone. Her scans were up on the neon lights. “You see these white patches? That’s cancer.”

“She told me just like that,” Lara said. “I came out of the room, towards Sarah, and we both started to cry.” But the doctor wouldn’t answer the radiologist’s call. And Lara was convinced that she was just an idiot, scaring her for nothing. She was in complete denial, and the whole way back to the office, she said she would a lawyer and sue her. Then went about her day. Worked on her presentation. Then went home to cook dinner for a few friends who were coming over. It was life as usual. Except for that gnawing feeling (instinct maybe?) that she should go home to Lebanon and get this whole thing checked out. “Calling my parents to tell them I needed to do that was one of the hardest things. And my father had barely just finished his treatments for cancer.”

The worst is the unknown

The tests confirmed what she feared. A 7cm tumor, which is huge, and very unlikely at such a young age. Especially with no family history. But before the confirmation, came worst part: the unknown. The series of tests she had to go through, the immersion in hospital atmosphere, the wait for the results to determine what kind of cancer, how could be treated… and the hours online looking at horrifying images. “I didn’t want to lose my hair,” she said. “And I really didn’t want to lose my breast.” What else is a 25 year-old supposed to think?

And then the life questions: “Would I have to leave my job? I loved my job. But I was going to have treatment in Lebanon… I had just come for a few tests with a carry-on luggage. I hadn’t even packed a thing. My whole life was there.” But everyone helped. Her boss shifted her to the Beirut office. She had to tell all her close friends… conversations that were very moving, and where she often ended up by comforting them, instead of the other way around. The only people she couldn’t tell were her grandparents, who were very fragile. She had to act normal around them the entire time. It was the only time she would wear her wig.

“I had very very long hair, so I decided to cut it. I went to the best hairdresser, and he gave me a kickass haircut. I would be out and run into people who obviously had no idea, and they all commented on how great my hair looked. Made me laugh inside.”

They did everything they could not to remove the breast. Chemo reduced her tumor enough that it was removed without a full mastectomy. The treatments lasted a year and a half. The first chemo session was the scariest. She didn’t know what to expect. And the whole hospital environment is disturbing. Not to mention watching the poison enter her veins. After the chemo, she would spend 4/5 days of horror and agony. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t speak. Couldn’t eat or drink or even see light. And then, she would feel better. She would go back to work. She went out on the weekends, clubbing and drinking. She ditched the wig she had made out of her own hair for colorful bandanas that matched her outfits. Finding them became an obsession. And it suited her too.

No room for tears

Her parents were her rocks. Even though her mother had just finished caring for her father through his own treatment, they did it again with her, their child. And they never shed a tear in front her. Her younger sister, 19 at time, who shared a room with her and faced her all day, every day, made her stronger. And Lara? She cried only twice. Maybe three times.

“I never once thought that I wouldn’t get better. It never even crossed my mind. My personality really helped through this. I’m the sort of person that doesn’t take anything too seriously.”

I was shocked. A 25-year-old girl going through chemo for a year and half, and she never indulged in self-pity?

Never, she said. “To be honest, it was one of the best periods of my life.”

I smiled. How? How could it be?

“Think about it! All the attention I was getting! I could do whatever I wanted. Everyone was dotting on me. I ditched work whenever I wanted, I picked the places we’d go out to, I was showered in love constantly.” Not to mention that when she lost her hair, she realized she didn’t have to shave or wax. That when she nauseous, she realized she was finally, easily getting rid of those extra kilos she always wanted out.

“This whole experience was only positive. I stayed same person I always was, but I had matured tremendously. My connections with my family and friends had deepened. I avoided negative people. I stopped doing things I don’t want to do…”

Amazing, I thought. I just barely learned how to do all these things.

The second time

“After I was healed the first time, I wanted to return the favor. I knew the universe had given me a chance, and I had to give it back. Talk to people, help them through it. I did interviews and talks, and you have no idea how many people have reached out to me over the years, because they went through it or a friend of a friend, or a cousin…”

I was listening, but something she said made me pause. “What do you mean ‘the first time’?”

She laughed. Again.

There was another cancer.

Six years after the first. And not the same cancer. No. A whole new one. Phyllodes. A cancer that happens to 1 in a million.

It was 2015, in Beirut. She was miles from thinking she would ever have to go through that again. Unlike many cancer survivors, she really never thought it would be a possibility. And she crossed the 5-years threshold of her cancer coming back. Yet she felt a lump. In her left breast. Again. A breast that had been treated, operated on, had radio therapy. She saw her doctor. They tested it. It was benign. But within a few months, it grew. She could feel it and it bothered her. It hurt her. She decided to get rid of it, even if it was nothing dangerous. And more tests were done.

She was at the office when her father picked up the results, and called her to announce it. A high-powered client servicing director, with a lot of responsibilities, who loves her job and where she works, and in the midst of all, cancer was back.

To lose a breast

This time, she went to a darker place; but not for long. This cancer didn’t require chemo, but it did require the entire breast to be removed. Lara was 31. A young woman with her whole life ahead. Losing her breast was very hard on her. “It’s not like they say. It’s not like breasts that go through plastic surgery. It was reconstruction, that’s very different.” It took a long time to find someone who could do a decent job. There was a down time. “I got depressed. It was unfair. I was sure no man would ever want me.”

Unfair is a tamed word, I thought. 2 cancers before the age of 32. Most of us get depressed for a lot less.

“Once the surgery was done, I was done. Back to normal. But I admit I couldn’t bring myself to let go. To be with a man. You don’t want to shock a guy, you know?”

“Is it really that shocking,” I asked?

“Want me to show you?”

She made me smile for the hundredth time. And she showed me, through Skype. I couldn’t see very well, but I could tell it felt like foreign object to her. Like she wasn’t really showing me her breast, but something that was put there.

To end with love, and self love

“So how did you get over it?”

“My boyfriend. He’s here, building me something.” She flips her phone camera, and I can see a man working on some kind of shelf or something. “We knew each other before, but we weren’t together. It was nine months after the surgery. He’s the one who made comfortable with my body again.”

You don’t deserve any less, I thought.

“How did you do this… Twice…?!”

“There’s a force that comes to you, I don’t know where from. I think it’s always harder for those around you. They don’t know how you feel, they don’t know if you’re lying, if you’re scared, if you’re in pain… but when it’s you, you know, right? And you can deal with it.”

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