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pink october: how hiba battled breast cancer, chemo & is regaining her fitness

Posted on September 30 2017

team ash be nimble speaks to Hiba during Pink October to understand, share and raise awareness on what it looks like for a young, active lady in the prime of her life to battle cancer, journey through chemotherapy, get proposed to and regain her fitness. Discovering a lump when she was 21, being diagnosed 4 years later and having a mastectomy, Hiba is a true inspiration of positivity, mental strength and motivation to lead a healthy, active lifestyle which we often take for granted.

"It feels so good to be able to work out! Because of the second laparotomy, I do get a bit of discomfort when I work out as it takes longer to heal this time around (they opened the same scar as last year), but it's manageable. I just keep in mind what my surgeon said "keep going if you feel a stretch, but stop if it's sharp pains". I do still go for the occasional walks, most of the time at Bukit Kiara."

How did you first come to know of your condition?
I was first diagnosed Feb 2015. Prior to that, I had a lump in my breast for 4 years which meant it started when I was only 21. The radiologist said it was a cyst, and there was nothing to worry about. They assumed that because I was young and there was nothing to be concerned about.

However, in Feb 2015, I started bleeding from my left nipple. Fearing the worst, I consulted my cousin who is a doctor, "Is this normal?" In fact, it wasn't! I had to consult a gynaecologist who then referred me to a radiologist, again I was greeted with "nothing" and that it was normal for a breastfeeder - but I wasn't married. Something definitely didn't add up and they, later on, realized there might be something wrong. I proceeded to have an ultrasound scan with a breast surgeon (Dr Harjit Kaur) and true enough, they found a tumour with signs of cancer. Within 4 days, my mum, sister and I got my results and that's when I found out together that I have breast cancer. I could tell my mom was worried, so I stayed strong for her and focused on what I could do next.

"When you are going thru this, make sure your caretakers have caretakers. It made the journey easier for me when I became more open to expressing my frustrations”

When you found out about your condition, what was the next step to recovery?
The surgeon (Dr Harjit Kaur) put surgery, chemotherapy and radiation on the table. She suggested surgery first, but I decided to seek a second opinion (Dr Yip Cheng Har). Dr Yip suggested that I could do chemo to shrink the tumour first and see whether there was an option to do a lumpectomy. After some discussions with my family and oncologist, I decided to go with chemo first instead of surgery, and then move on to radiation. I started chemo in March 2015 for 6 cycles and finished in June. I had my surgery done in July 2015 and in September 2015 I started my radiation therapy.

I thank god that my family, friends and then boyfriend were very supportive and read up on all the medical terms. While going through breast cancer, I wasn't in the right state of mind to do my own research, so they studied what was involved in the treatment and coached me through it.

Your body goes through so much change, and for women especially, losing your hair can leave you feeling insecure and vulnerable, how did you feel and how did you overcome?
When I lost my hair, I did henna on my head twice to feel good about myself. I also did henna on my scar (photo below) when I started to gain 10kg from chemo (steroids)! I also had a Baymax doll that I would take with me to the hospital, so he was my personal healthcare companion. I wouldn't start chemo without him. I also celebrated the last day of chemo and herceptin by dressing up and making it a themed event in the hospital!

I was 55kg pre-chemo and I felt lazy and became a couch potato. I went for walks for 5-10 mins and it would be more than I could handle. I was so upset that I couldn’t swim during my chemo therapy because I've always loved it.

Once in awhile, my mom and friends will book a staycation for me. My mum is a big believer that being in a different environment helps psychologically, and she's right!

 

I also had a Baymax doll that I would take with me to the hospital, so he was my personal healthcare companion. I wouldn't start chemo without him. I also celebrated the last day of chemo and herceptin by dressing up and making it a themed event in the hospital!
ash be nimble pink october hiba
This was featured on a page called True Complexion, a project by Rozella to celebrate beauty and diversity. Photo by Melissa Toh Shu Xin (@melissatohshuxin), Henna by @4nn4henna.

 

Because of this experience, now that I'm better I try to prep newly diagnosed patients after their first chemo therapy from the breast cancer awareness group. People are afraid and scared that people will look at them differently once they go through the changes but I need them to know they shouldn't feel that way. 

What was your journey through chemotherapy like?
Oh man! Yes! A lot of people don't know this but my first chemo cycle was horrible. I was excited at first and after that, I did not even want to go again. I had bad nausea, I lost my appetite and couldn’t even look at my phone for a week. I was so tired and I couldn’t even walk up past the 2nd floor. I would have to sleep every 2 hours. It really took a toll on me because the first chemo sent my body into shock and it could not get used to it.

It made me forgetful and I started losing my grip on things. I would be clumsy and drop items every day. What really frustrated me was always forgetting where I put my keys. I couldn’t focus and would zone out and lose track of conversations. I called it chemo brain!

Because of this experience, now that I'm better I try to prep newly diagnosed patients after their first chemotherapy from the breast cancer awareness group. People are afraid and scared that people will look at them differently once they go through the changes but I need them to know they shouldn't feel that way. When you are going through this, make sure your caregivers have caregivers too. It's not easy for them and cancer affect the whole family, not just the patient. It made the journey easier for me when I became more open to expressing my frustrations.

Henna and photos by Karthine Maniam @tmk_henna
Your darling husband proposed to you while you were going through chemo. He must be a keeper! Tell us your proposal story!
In June 2015, he proposed during my last chemo. I was so groggy from meds. He planned everything. Got my friends and my sister to come with cake and balloons. Initially, I think he wanted to do it before my chemo started but because my cousin who was in charge of the flowers came late, he did it after. Then he sat down on my bed and told me he loved me and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. And then he popped the question and I said OF COURSE! 😂 It only hit me 2 days later though that he proposed because I was so high on my meds 😂
Henna and photos by Aainaa Rambli of @thesteadyhands.
What do you do for fitness and what are the challenges?
I've started swimming and going to the gym recently. I'd usually spend 15-20 minutes on the treadmill and then head over to the pool to do a few laps. It feels so good to be able to work out! Because of the second laparotomy, I do get a bit of discomfort when I work out as it takes longer to heal this time around (they opened the same scar as last year), but it's manageable. I just keep in mind what my surgeon said: "keep going if you feel a stretch, but stop if it's sharp pains". I do still go for the occasional walks, most of the time at Bukit Kiara.
@thesteadyhands make their own henna from scratch too!
What are your fitness goals?
Right now I only work out 1-2 times a week so I'd like to be able to work out daily by the end of the year and for a longer period of time. I want to strengthen my core muscles as well as improve the lymphatic flow on my left arm as it's susceptible to lymphoedema. I have to admit I haven't been that disciplined with the exercises for my arm (supposed to do it daily) but I'm working on it! :p
Can you tell us how has your 2017 been so far?
I'm in the midst of finishing up my research paper for my Bachelors in Business Admin. I've been pretty active in events to create awareness for cancer. My friends and I camped at Relay For Life 2017 and I shared my story at the Malaysia ACTION Study 2nd Roundtable Meeting 2017: Policies and Priorities for Cancer Survivorship. The ACTION study was something new for me because it was the first time I was sharing my story about life AFTER cancer. I also just got a job and starting the 27th of September I'll be working for Cancer Research Malaysia as an Events Executive! So I guess I’m doing pretty much alright at the moment. I do still have my moments where I struggle to keep my feet on the ground though. Earlier this year I went for my 2nd laparotomy to remove an ovarian cyst again, and my health has been quite a roller coaster the first half of the year, both physically and emotionally. Having said that, the obstacles that I face just make me stronger and make me appreciate life even more :)
What is life like after surviving breast cancer?
It's new! I guess that's the word for it. It has its set of challenges, but taking it a day at a time helps. My body has gone through so much that I've actually had the need to familiarize myself with it all over again. I know it sounds strange, but that's how it pretty much feels like. The hospital visits have definitely gotten less (yay!). Instead of being admitted every 3 weeks, I see my doctors every 3-6 months now as an outpatient. Going through cancer does have its side effects, both physically and emotionally. I'm learning to be patient with the recovery of my body and to have more compassion for myself. It's proven to be tough because people who have not gone through it, don't understand that post-cancer care is just as important as when patients are going through treatment. It will take time, so I surround myself with as much positivity as I can :)
What would be your top advice for women going through this right now?
Take it one day at a time and don't be in a haste to make decisions. Getting a second opinion is okay if it gives you a better understanding of what you're going through and will give you peace of mind. Surround yourself with positive energy and be patient with yourself throughout the journey.
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