Photography: Florian Klauer/Unsplash

The end of our 20s and the start of our 30s are considered to be some of the most exciting years in our lives that many of us look forward to. Our health is probably one of the least of our concerns, but that wasn’t the case for Hiba Abdul Rahman, the founder of Spectatula Bakery, who was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago.

From being someone who worked in events and was always on the go, Hiba had to take a backseat and go through a great turmoil before finding a new passion to make the best out of the options that landed on her lap. Despite the ups and downs, Hiba admits that if she didn’t have cancer, she wouldn’t be who she is today. While she didn’t like the experience, she’s truly grateful for it and ready to tell us all about the ups and downs of battling the Big C.

It started with a bleeding nipple

Photography: Hiba Abdul Rahman

“I still remember it being Valentine’s Day. For four years, I felt a lump in my breast, but every time I got it checked, I was told that it was a cyst, judging from my age and having had no family history of breast cancer. After a shower that day, I realised that my nipple was bleeding, so I went straight to the doctor. Even then, the radiologist said it was nothing to worry about; that my milk ducts were full and that it’s normal for women who were breastfeeding. However, I explained to her that I was single, not a mother and definitely not breastfeeding. It was only then that she realised there was something wrong with me."

"After being referred to a breast surgeon and getting another round of ultrasound done, my breast specialist told me that it looked like I had a tumour, which was about four to five centimetres big. She showed me the white spots on the screen that were called calcifications aka calcium deposits that indicated the presence of cancer in my body. After more scans, she revealed how my lymph nodes were swollen and told me, ‘I’m really hoping that this is another condition that mimics cancer, but I can only confirm it via a biopsy.’ I agreed to get a biopsy done and was told to come back the following Monday to view the results.”

Coming clear and accepting the truth

Photography: Hiba Abdul Rahman

“The wait over the weekend was unsettling. I told my family, broke down and had a lot of unanswered questions running through my mind. My mum and sister insisted on coming with me to collect my results because they were worried too. When Monday came, I was ready for the worst and the breast surgeon confirmed that I had stage two breast cancer. I still remember her asking me if I needed time to digest the entire thing, and I said no. I wanted to know everything, including the treatment package – chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. At that point, my biggest concern was my mum who was with me, as she had just lost my dad and was still grieving. I knew I had to be strong for her, but my mum was the sweetest. She immediately informed the entire family that we were going out for tea to ease things down a little. That’s how she’s always been; her love language is feeding her loved ones. After I relaxed a bit and got home, all I remembered doing was cry.”

Putting the pieces of puzzle together

Photography: Hiba Abdul Rahman

“After multiple visits and scans, I decided to opt for chemo with the hope that the tumour which was near my chest wall would shrink before the mastectomy or lumpectomy was done. Chemo – the infusion of medication via IV drops or a chemo port lasted for what I’d call the most horrible six cycles of my life. Going into the hospital excited to find out how my body would react to it turned out badly and got me crying all night long. I woke up hungry while feeling nauseated and fatigued at the same time. Plus, I couldn’t move, so my sister had to carry me to the bathroom. I was only able to sit up, speak and eat the next day, but above all, I realised that I couldn’t look at screens as it made me feel dizzy.”

“Throughout the process, I had insomnia and felt tired at the same time, and in the last three cycles when I changed medication, the side effects caused me to have severe body aches that lasted for at least a week and a half. I also suffered from what we cancer patients call ‘chemo brain’ that made me easily forget things within the span of five minutes. On the bright side, though, my side effects kicked in at the same time every day. I realised that by 6.30pm, extreme fatigue would hit, so I'd have dinner by 5.30pm and go to bed an hour later. I’d sleep until 3am before insomnia kicked in and be rolling in bed until 7am before heading downstairs and going through my usual routine. My mum’s house was three storeys high, so I only had enough energy to go up and down once a day. Despite all that, I tried my best to make the most out of the situation. My sister owns a batik business, and she made me colourful robes to wear to chemo. That made it easier for me to have a different mindset whenever I went in for the treatment.”

“Next came surgery. By then, the tumour had shrunk to one and a half centimetres, and my surgeon was elated. However, because there were still calcifications close to my chest wall, I had to go through a mastectomy and come to a decision on whether or not I'd like to go for reconstructive surgery. I was given the option of having a silicone placed inside my breast, which had to be replaced once every decade, or taking a muscle from a different part of the body. At this point, my only concern was that if I had kids, would I be able to breastfeed them? To which, my doctors explained that our bodies are amazing in the sense that they can adjust the amount of milk they produce even with one breast and how much the baby needs. On top of that, formula milk is readily available, should I need some extra help. Overwhelmed, I turned to my loved ones for answers. They reminded me that whatever decision I choose to make, they would respect it, support it and above all, still love me. After much deliberation, I opted to move forward with a mastectomy without reconstructive surgery.”

Waking up to a new norm

Photography: @Karthine Maniam

“I remember waking up, touching my chest and bursting into tears after realising that I didn’t have a left breast. I was crying not because I regretted my decision, but because I was grieving. My breasts had been a part of me for 25 years and it didn’t hit me that losing one of them was going to be a big thing until I really lost it. I allowed myself to cry and feel the rush of emotions that came over me. Again, I tried to make the most out of my situation, even when I lost the hair on my head and the scar on my breast healed; I did henna art just for the fun of it (pictured above). Little things like that made me happy. Yes, I grieved, but I didn’t regret the decision to remove my breast completely. I'm proud of my scar and love myself better now, more than I ever did. Having only one breast doesn’t make me any less of a woman.”

“If you thought that the worst had happened for me, you're wrong, because things got even worse after that. From thinking that I had only 15 rounds of radiation left before I ended my treatment, the results from my HER2 test came back positive after the mastectomy. This meant that I had to go through another 17 rounds of targeted treatment which was basically the same process as going through chemo. I broke down again, and after radiation, I told my doctor that I needed a break. I took a month off to travel and clear my mind, then came back and told myself that I had to get this done. If I had already gone through six months of treatment, what was another year to get it out of the way?”

Realising that I wasn’t spared… yet

Photography: @azmankarib

“Targeted therapy came with its own set of effects including severe migraines, fever and chills. I couldn’t function well, but it was relatively easier than chemo. While I was going through it in 2016, I did my yearly scans and my doctor found a cyst in my right ovary that was six centimetres big. Because of my history with breast cancer, he wanted to do an open surgery to remove it while it was intact as opposed to doing a scope in case it ended up rupturing and spreading. So I got it removed and was relieved to find out that it was just a water cyst – phew!’"

"By the end of 2016, I had finished targeted therapy, but alas, in 2017, my doctor discovered yet another cyst in my left ovary that was seven centimetres big. Again, he wanted to remove it, but I decided to get a second opinion first. However, I wasn’t comfortable with the second doctor and went back to the first one to have the cyst removed.”

“Around that time, my hospital treatments were coming to an end and I was on a tablet called Tamoxifen that helps to block estrogen receptors. In November 2017, I got a job back in events and was living my life until I felt a sudden pain in my ovaries. It was again another cyst which was about eight centimetres big. I was in so much pain, but at the same time, I didn’t want to miss Ed Sheeran’s concert which was scheduled to happen the next day. I thought to myself that if I was going for surgery, I’d want to say that I managed to enjoy myself at the concert first before going into the OT! However, I ended up leaving earlier as the pain was unbearable, and told my doctor that I wanted to have it removed the following day.”

“The difference was that this time around, my cyst had ruptured and there were smaller cysts growing on my fallopian tubes. My doctor didn’t have any other patients with this kind of side effect, so after a thorough discussion with my oncologist and gynaecologist, I decided to switch from taking Tamoxifen to Lucrin (a monthly injection that puts me in a temporary state of menopause). The migraines I got as a result of taking Lucrin were of a different level, and I had to give my job up as I couldn’t function at all. At home, I could barely walk from the sofa to the kitchen, but I was very thankful to my (now) ex-husband for helping me out with all the meal prep and house chores during this period as I didn’t have the slightest energy to do anything. This went on for a year. In 2020, after careful consideration and discussions with my doctors, I was allowed to stop my treatments and declared cancer-free (cancer patients are considered cancer-free after five years of being in remission)."

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Photography: VRP Photography

“In 2018, I decided to take better care of my mental health and started seeing a psychologist. I wouldn’t say that I was depressed as I was never clinically diagnosed, but I went through depressive episodes where I would become suicidal. My body was going through so many changes and I wasn’t handling it well, so I decided to seek help before things got worse.”

“When I first started looking for a therapist, I wasn’t financially stable. Then I read about free counselling sessions that were available at universities who offered Psychology as a course. So I reached out to Monash University and signed up to see one of their students as part of their practicum. There were a lot of things that weren't addressed from the start of my diagnosis, but seeing a counsellor helped me understand, restructure and address the mess that was going on in my mind, at my own pace too. It was a safe space where I could express my thoughts and emotions without judgement, where I felt seen, heard and understood. With student counsellors, they change every three months because that’s usually how long the practicum lasts. So after a year, I decided to look for a more experienced therapist, having learned that it’s perfectly normal to outgrow a therapist*. As you go through the changes in your life, you can opt to find another therapist to help with the next stage of life that you embark on. When I started, I didn’t know which area of my life I needed to focus on. Now, when I go for therapy, I can tell my counsellor what I want to address, bearing in mind that the counsellor isn't there to fix my problems, but to guide me through them.”

“One of the biggest lessons that cancer has taught me was the importance of self-love. I used to put myself down and believed that I wasn’t good enough. Today, I have more confidence and am more accepting of myself, both physically and emotionally. I’ve also learned that when you surround yourself with good people, it creates a positive impact on your life. Of course, I have my down days and make mistakes too, but that only makes me human. Having grown up in an Asian culture where you’re taught to do as you’re told without questions, I had to learn how to apologise to those who were younger than me. In fact, my niece was the one who taught me to normalise saying sorry. On days when I’d snap at her, I’d remind myself that she’s just a child and then try my best to apologise to her. To that, she always says, ‘It’s okay. I know you’re having a bad day.’”

“Self-love while staying mindful about your actions is truly important. This entire journey, in a nutshell, had been a collective effort. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without the strong support from my family members, my friends (who took turns taking care of me in the hospital and who flew in from other countries to make sure that I’d pull through), my ex-husband (who played a very huge role in helping me deal with everything and didn't leave me when I was at my worst), and all my doctors and nurses who were there to make my days in the hospital better. While I didn’t like the experience (as anyone else wouldn’t), I’m truly grateful that I got to live through it and share my story.”

*Please note that this is based on personal experience. It's not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. If you're suffering from any form of mental illness, please seek immediate help from your doctor.

Featured image: Azman Karib

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