Breast cancer survivors share stories of struggle, recovery

(File photo: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)
AMMAN — Ohoud, a Jordanian woman who lives in Amman, first noticed something was wrong when she felt an intense pain in her upper torso.اضافة اعلان

“I discovered it when I saw changes in breast shape, and felt severe burning pain from under the armpit to the breast,” she said.

After consulting a doctor and undergoing tests, Ohoud was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, an advanced stage involving the spread of the cancer to nearby lymph nodes. 

“I went through a long and difficult journey involving all kinds of therapeutic procedures including multiple operations and excisions, chemotherapy of all kinds, radiotherapy, and biological and hormonal treatments,” Ohoud told Jordan News. 

A promotional poster that reads “A scan for life... get tested”, part of this year’s Arab Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign. (Photo: Jordan Breast Cancer Program)

Though long and arduous, Ohoud’s treatment journey was effective. “I am now cancer free and in excellent health,” she said.

Today, she is one of Jordan’s many breast cancer survivors.

Breast cancer is the Kingdom’s most common cancer, and has the third highest rate of cancer mortality, behind only lung and colorectal cancers, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

In 2020, Jordan recorded 2,403 new cases of breast cancer, about one-fifth, or 20.8 percent, of all cancer cases recorded for that year, according to data from the World Health Organization’s Global Cancer Observatory.

From diagnosis to treatment
“With modern medicine and the emergence of genetic profiling, the kinds of treatment have become vast and variable especially in cases of cancer,” remarked Basem Hamdan, a surgical oncologist for breast cancer and thyroid cancer. He explained that different treatments include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and target therapy.

“The new concept of tailored medicine manages a patient’s treatment based on their condition, health, age, and disease, and is implemented through a multidisciplinary clinic in which the surgeon, the medical oncologist, and the radiologist, agree upon a plan covering all branches of treatment,” Hamdan told Jordan News.

The process begins with diagnosis, which usually occurs after the patient notices a lump, nipple discharge, or skin changes. Based on these symptoms, a thorough history is taken along with a physical exam. Afterwards, most patients undergo both an ultrasound and a mammogram.

If the scans show any tumors or other signs of cancer, said Hamdan, a biopsy if conducted to determine whether the tumors are malignant or not, and a follow-up appointment is scheduled.

Hamdan explained that, because breast cancer is a systemic condition, treatment has both a local aspect and a systemic aspect. For the local treatment, there are two approaches: surgery and radiology. Surgery can take the form of either a mastectomy or an excision, with or without reconstruction. Radiology is undergone after the surgery. 

As for the systemic treatment, it includes chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and hormonal therapy, depending on the stage, type of tumor, and other factors, he said.

The sooner, the better
Regular scans can be very effective in providing early detection, which improves survival rates, care experiences, and quality of life for cancer patients. This was the experience of Najwah Karadsheh, a breast cancer patient who had regular preventive scans.

Karadsheh was diagnosed in 2015, has been a cancer survivor since 2019. Before her diagnosis, she had frequent mammograms, “which was the core reason for early detection,” she told Jordan News.

“Prior to my diagnosis, I regularly visited the King Hussein Cancer Center for prevention purposes. One of those visits was elongated, as my mammogram results appeared suspicious, and I was referred for an ultrasound and biopsy for further examination. Then, a cancerous tumor was found,” she recalled.

“Unfortunately, my case of cancer was triple positive breast cancer,” she said.

Triple positive breast cancer refers to tumors in which the cancer cells grow in response to three factors: estrogen and progesterone hormones and a protein known as human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).

Karadsheh’s treatment plan was extensive. “Since I had an early diagnosis, I was immediately referred for a lumpectomy. I was then referred for chemotherapy, which involved eight sessions, in addition to target therapy — a drug-based treatment used to target specific genes and proteins, killing the HER2 positive — for 12 months. I also underwent radiology and had hormone therapy,” she said.

This combination of treatments was effective in eliminating the cancer, and Karadsheh has been officially cancer-free since 2019.

The scars of survival
Ghada Zada, another cancer survivor, reflected on her own cancer journey. She said: “I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer back in March of 2020 in the midst of COVID-19, and have only recently finished treatment.”

Zada’s treatment plan involved eight chemotherapy sessions, a bilateral mastectomy, 27 lymph node removals, 27 radiation sessions, “and I’m currently on hormonal treatment every day for the next seven years, for reoccurrence prevention,” she said.

When diagnosed, Zada got tested for the breast cancer genes one and two (BRCA 1 and 2) to determine if mutations in her DNA were playing a role in her cancer. She tested negative for both, suggesting that her cancer was not hereditary. “This helped the doctors decide the protocol of the treatment that I would receive,” she explained.

Because she had tested negative for the BRCAs, her medical team decided to remove both breasts for prevention. Given a family history of breast cancer as well, she also had her ovaries and tubes removed.

A mental health journey
Breast cancer does not just affect a patient’s physical health — it can also take a massive toll on mental health.

“Being diagnosed during lockdown was like an ambush,” said Zada. “Dealing with the news alone and away from family was mentally draining, let alone fighting through my treatment journey.”

Even after recovering from cancer, Zada still had to battle mental health struggles. Although she knew that hormonal treatment was the best medication to prevent recurrence, “it took a toll on my psychological state. I developed anxiety, gained weight, and had gruesome bone and joint pain,” she said.

Zada was inspired to share her cancer journey on social media.

“The impact breast cancer has had on my mental health was immense, but I tried to remain optimistic, so I named my Instagram page ‘the love of life’ to document my journey and spread awareness,” she said.

Her followers provided her with “immense positivity, compassion, prayers, and kindness”.

“People still reach out to me seeking support and help — both cancer patients and survivors,” she said.

Breast cancer patients also find support closer to home. “Due to the unconditional love and support from my family and their company while I was in treatment, it was easier to cope and my mental health wasn’t impacted,” Karadsheh reflected. “Aside from my disorderly sleeping patterns due to radiation, I resumed my daily physical activity and exercise.”

A scan for life
HRH Princess Ghida Talal, chairperson of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation and Center, launched the seventh Arab Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign at the beginning of the month under the slogan: “A scan for life… get tested.”

The campaign aims to raise awareness on the importance of early detection of breast cancer.

“I urge every woman to make her health a priority, and not to hesitate to immediately get a mammogram, which could save her life,” wrote Princess Ghida on her official Twitter.

Through the regional awareness campaign, the Jordan Breast Cancer Program, in cooperation with entities across the Arab world, works to save the lives of women by encouraging them to pursue breast cancer screening immediately.

This is because of the sad reality that not every breast cancer patient becomes a survivor.

“Unfortunate deaths occurred in my family due to a lack of identifying breast cancer, false diagnosis, and poor treatment after diagnosis,” explained Karadsheh.

“I am a keen supporter of breast cancer awareness and the use of the pink ribbon,” she said. “I believe it’s both feminine and symbolic.”

She also “strongly advised” women to have regular mammograms from the age of 40 onwards.

Zada advocates for displaying a pink ribbon during October, which is breast cancer awareness month, and says she believes “it shouldn’t be restricted to only the month of October, as it is a great reminder for all woman to get tested frequently.” 

Hamdan also urged women to get checked. “Starting from the age of 40, screening is known to improve the survival rate, as a tumor may be found at an early stage.”

According to the oncologist, any patient with a positive family history should start even earlier — at 30 years old.

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