Published in Gulf Times on October 4, 2003

Can(cer) survivor

Gulf Times journalist LENA LIEW has a chat with an extraordinary long-time resident of Doha, who has emerged from her battle with breast cancer with renewed vigour

IF YOU think cancer is a death sentence, then you haven't met Neelofur Gasan.

The 48-year-old a mother of four has just gone back to work full-time as a customer relations executive at a local bank after emerging victorious in a seven-month battle with breast cancer.

Considering that the breast is a taboo subject in these parts, it is all the more extraordinary that Neelofur is willing to come forward to talk about her case.

"I'm going all out to tell people, especially women, that 'cancer' doesn't have to mean 'death'. You just have to turn it into 'CAN SURVIVE' instead," Neelofur said in an interview.

She is so full of energy that it's hard to believe that just a few months ago she was reduced to a pitiful shade of herself.

"I have started putting my life back on track since I got a clean bill of health from my oncologist in July. I started work again in August.


Neelofur with her daughter Miriam

"You know, for someone who used to work, getting back to work full-time is the definitive act of having won the battle. Being forced to stop work to deal with the nightmare was what marked the battle lines," she explained.

Neelofur remembered clearly the beginning of the "nightmare" late last year.

"I was reading a magazine in bed one night when I thought I felt a lump in my breast," she said. However, she dismissed the matter and thought no more about it.

Days later, by chance she met a family friend, Dr Firas A Tawfiq al-Rawi and his wife Dr Asma, who work in Hamad hospital.

"Just as we were saying goodbye, something made me ask Dr Asma what I should do if I thought I found a lump in my breast." The next morning, she got a call from Dr Firas asking her to go immediately to the Department of Surgery for a consultation.

"He sounded concerned. I went straight to the hospital. Everything after that was a blur. The next thing I knew, they had taken a sample of my breast tissue for biopsy, using a huge syringe that hurt a lot."

Neelofur says she cried and cried when she was told that the small lump in her breast was malignant - i.e. cancerous.

"My first tought was, 'How much time left do I have? Why me?' My whole world was shattered ... the fear of death was overwhelming."

"It was a great blow to my husband Michael because he had lost his mother to bone cancer, and a younger sister to Hodgkin's Disease (a cancer of the lymphatic system).

"The fear of losing your breast - and all the social implications - start sinking in only later," Neelofur explained.

On January 4 this year, Neelofur underwent surgery to remove the lump.

"My surgeon Dr Bestoun Ahmed had given me a very good prognosis of 96% recovery - because the lump was detected early."

Neelofur and her husband told the children the truth only after the surgery.

"We wanted to be more sure and knowledgable before we told the children, because we wanted to be able to answer their questions calmly and educate them as well," she said.

For her, chemotherapy was the battle proper against cancer.

"The injections were painful, yes, but not unbearable, although some of the women there were wailing and screaming. That made it a little easier for me to be brave.

"I wanted to live for my children; I had to set a good example. So I told myself that this was something that had to be done if I wanted to live, so let's just get it over and done with in as dignified a manner as possible.

Still, for all the pep talks Neelofur gave herself, for all the warmth and kindness of her oncologist Dr Kakil Ibrahim and the staff in Hamad Hospital's Oncology Department, nothing prepared her for the impact of chemotherapy.

"The shock of seeing my hair fall out in clumps was greater than any physical pain," Neelofur said.

"All my life I kept my hair long and beautiful. I was so depressed and constantly in tears that it was no comfort knowing that my hair would grow back after this was over."

Never mind the negative comments from some quarters about her being punished for not wearing a hijab.

"That hurt. But slowly I realise that among the women undergoing chemotherapy for even more serious cancers were some very religious and tightly wrapped ones. So I concluded that some people were just plain ignorant," Neelofur said.

The depression was compounded by physical weakness brought on by severe nausea which left her constantly vomiting after each session of chemotherapy.

"It was impossible to keep anything down for the first week or so after each session of chemotherapy. I was so weak that I couldn't do anything. Yet I had to force myself to start building up strength before the next chemotherapy session in three weeks' time."

The chemotherapy also weakened her immune system, such that she became very susceptible to infections.

"From a very confident outgoing, sociable person, I became withdrawn and afraid of everything," she said.

Then Neelofur met Kathleen Donahue, a Canadian living in Doha, who had survived not only breast cancer but a brain tumour before that.

"Kathy was the rock I clung onto for dear life. She had been through all that I was going through and even survived a brain tumour. Who was I to complain and feel sorry for myself?" Neelofur said.

Neelofur started thinking positive and eventually got to know two American women -Iris Portney and Ellie Lebaron - who corresponded with her, advised her and encouraged her from thousands of kilometres away through the Internet.

This made her realise that family support was not enough. Moral support had to come also from other cancer patients who have been through the suffering and triumphed.

"Here we are afraid of cancer, that's why we don't talk about it. What more breast cancer," Neelofur said.

She recounted the two months radiotherapy she underwent in Spain after she completed the prescribed course of chemotherapy.

"Everyone was openly discussing breast cancer ... and encouraging one another. I learnt so much; it was such a wonderful experience," she said.

"There's surely a reason why I had to go through this experience," Neelofur concludes. "The way things are falling into place, I believe Allah meant for me to speak out and help others who are going through what I went through."

Note: Radiotherapy is presently unavailable in Qatar.