TOUGHER THAN CANCER: DR. FEHMIDA MIRZA

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THIS OCTOBER, WE CELEBRATE BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH WITH A SERIES OF ARTICLES HIGHLIGHTING SOME INCREDIBLE WOMAN WHO BEAT THE ODDS AGAINST BREAST CANCER

When and how did you first find out you have breast cancer?
In March of 2012, Breast cancer runs in my family. I felt a lump in my breast one day and asked my daughter, who is a doctor, to examine me. When she confirmed the lump, I immediately underwent the procedure of a mammogram and biopsy.

What were your main concerns after being diagnosed?
After being diagnosed and having the BRCA (defective) gene, my immediate and major concerns were my children and family. On a personal level, I was concerned about the stage of breast cancer I had and how I would go about fighting it. As the sitting speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly at the time, several initiatives undertaken by me regarding women empowerment and strengthening the parliament were underway, and my concern for work was that they would be shelved.

How did your family react to the news? How did you break it to them?
The entire family was understandably shocked, and my children were particularly devastated, as they could never have expected a loved one to have a life-threatening ailment like cancer. After my daughter felt the lump and we had gone for a biopsy, the doctor shared the results with my family before informing me.

How did you cope emotionally? What were your highs and lows? Who/what was your support network at the time?
The entire tribulation was a test of nerves, spirit and physical perseverance. The first test was coping with the realization that my body had turned against itself. cancer,unlike any other disease, feeds off of your health and well being, whereas it is the treatment that brings on the most painful side effects. Hair loss, nausea, loss of appetite, muscular pains, GIT bleeding and stomach ulcers all follow every cycle of chemotherapy. Being diagnosed with breast cancer whilst, being in office put me in a unique position to highlight the plight of innumerable women of Pakistan who suffer this disease in silence. Keeping this in mind, I was driven not to allow my treatment to undermine my official functions.

What treatment methods did you go for? Did you continue to work?
I opted for the full fight; surgery and chemotherapy. During my chemo, even though I lost my hair after the first round, I chaired National Assembly sessions and hosted two international conferences: SAARC and ECO.

How do cancer doctors, treatments and facilities in Pakistan compare to that abroad?
My chemotherapy at Agha Khan Hospital and follow up at Liaquat National hospital were comparable to international standards. I am particularly grateful to the entire team at Agha Khan, as they were helpful and supportive throughout the process. Very few hospitals are equipped for cancer treatment and we need more dedicated units across the country.

What message would you like to give to people about cancer? What advice would you give to women who are, or will be, going through the same thing you went through?
The rate of breast cancer is very high in Pakistan, however, there is no national database. My first advice would be for the government to develop a mechanism of collecting data of women suffering from breast cancer and to create awareness about the disease through female health workers and media in reaching out to women in rural areas of Pakistan. All government hospitals should have mammogram machines and other testing facilities. I would advise women not to take their health for granted. Self examine your selves and get mammograms regularly. Also, it is important that they know not to ignore their condition when diagnosed, due to cultural taboos. They should not treat breast cancer as a death sentence and fight bravely.

Do you feel it’s a taboo subject in Pakistan? What more can be done to change that?
Yes it is. A lot of women die in silence due to cultural taboos. It is a result of a lack of education and awareness. Breast cancer should be treated like any other life threatening disease, and not seen as a thing of shame. Breast cancer is treatable if diagnosed at an early stage.

What are you doing towards raising awareness about breast cancer?
I have set up an organization with the name of Pakistan Breast cancer Trust (PBCT). PBCT will not only create awareness throughout Pakistan about breast cancer, but will provide guidance and support from the stage of diagnosis to the end of the treatment for women. We are creating a mechanism in which girls are educated about this disease from a young age and are informed on how to examine themselves. We are also looking to help hospitals to be equipped with mammograms facilities and counseling of patients, which is imperative during their treatment.

In May this year, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy on finding out that carried the defective gene – even though she did not have cancer at the time. What do you think of her decision?
In my opinion, it was a very strong and courageous decision, and led to encouraging women with a family history to take action. She has become a role model for those women. However in a society like Pakistan it is very difficult to convince women to undergo surgery before being diagnosed with breast cancer.

How long have you been cancer free?
Since 2012. However, you cannot say you are completely cured till after the five-year mark.

What are some common misconceptions about breast cancer?
Some common misconceptions are that it cannot be cured, that breast cancer can be contagious and can only happen after a certain age. There are some religious and cultural myths, and most people think it can only happen to women, which is not true at all. This is why it is crucial that there be awareness and education on health, not just on breast cancer but various other forms of cancer, disease and illness

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