Sister Iman Zeinab (aka Carmen Pai Daschke) spoke to me about coping with cancer, how it enriched her life and her plans of opening a foundation for Muslim women in a similar condition.
[Klaudia] Why do you think people don’t talk about breast cancer openly?
[Iman Zeinab] People have reservations about talking about cancer because we are really afraid of dealing with death. People are afraid of the idea that something may come that you have no control over. However, there is the concept that what happens is what is meant to be – what is written for us. And there was cancer written for me. I can’t be ashamed of something that I haven’t brought upon myself. Breast cancer is not something associated with bad habits, such as smoking. The doctors don’t know why some women get it. I don’t know why I have it, but I know what I can do with it, insha Allah.
[Klaudia] So do you feel you have learnt something through your illness?
[Iman Zeinab] It teaches you to live every day as if it was your last. It made me think about what I can do for my Ummah, for the sake of Allah and what I will give to my daughter and my family. It shows that we don’t have control over our lives as we imagine we have.
[Klaudia] How did you find out that you’ve got breast cancer?
[Iman Zeinab] I normally go for the mammogram, but this particular year I missed it. I was taking a nap and I found a place on the side of my breast that was itchy and when I scratched it there was a lump and that did not feel right. I felt it, I got my mother to feel it and I was really panicky. Within a couple of days, I called the doctor and made an appointment. And to begin with they didn’t even think it was cancer because of the way it felt, but I went through several screenings and finally it has been confirmed that it was breast cancer.
[Klaudia] Alhamdulillah, you acted very quickly.
[Iman Zeinab] Yes, Alhamdulillah. The cancer that I have is a very aggressive cancer called triple negative breast cancer and that just means it does not respond to certain therapies, making it very difficult to treat. And when I found it, it was already stage two – well, just the beginning of stage two Alhamdulillah – but the aggressive approach was a must.
[Klaudia] What has been the hardest part of the cancer treatment so far?
[Iman Zeinab] The most difficult thing is the way the chemotherapy has affected my body. I’ve lost my hair. The chemotherapy kills all the good bacteria in my body making me very susceptible to illnesses and unable to eat at times. The worst thing emotionally is not having control over my body. There were times when I couldn’t offer salah standing – I was physically unable to.
[Klaudia] Where do you take your strength from?
[Iman Zeinab] Alhamdulillah I realised that cancer is something that Allah has ordained for me. So I can either treat it like a burden or like a gift. And even though it’s difficult, I take it as a gift. Every day that I can do something wonderful for my family and friends is a good day. And I try to help other women because I discovered that there are not any foundations or support groups for Muslims with breast or gynaecological cancer. Following my Facebook post, I got at least a hundred letters from women who are dealing with cancer and a lot of the issues that have been raised had not occurred to me.
[Klaudia] What advice would you give to people diagnosed with cancer?
[Iman Zeinab] A friend of mine told me that the people who had the best outcome in their cancer treatment were the ones who do voluntary work and the ones who join support groups, so that would be the best thing to do. When you have the energy, help someone else.
[Klaudia] What are your plans for the future?
[Iman Zeinab] One of my plans is to open the foundation to help other Muslim women with cancer. I’m very excited about that! I would like it to serve Muslim women in terms of communicating with each other without reservations and talking about available alternatives, like truly Islamic practices: cupping, reading Surah Al-Fatiha over water, some holistic medicine to accompany the regular treatment, etc. I also want it to help with the issue of communication between the women and their doctors and healthcare providers.
What can we do about breast cancer?
It may not be a likely topic of conversation, but as approximately one in eight women in the UK is diagnosed with breast cancer each year, each of us probably knows someone who is affected by this disease. And it is important to talk about it because the more we know about it, the sooner we can spot the early symptoms and the better chance we have of beating it, insha Allah.
Doctors are not able to point out exactly what causes breast cancer, but a few factors can be taken into consideration when assessing the risk. The probability of developing cancer increases with age. Genetic mutations are also responsible for some forms of breast cancer. Some research has suggested that women who breastfeed their children are less likely to develop breast cancer. However, there are also women who are diagnosed with the disease even though in theory they were in a low risk group. As with everything else that befalls us, only Allah I knows all the whys and hows.
We can never be completely sure that the breast cancer will not affect us, but by following certain measures we could reduce the risk. General risk reduction strategies, applicable to all women, include a balanced diet, regular physical activity, weight management and breast feeding.
Breast cancer is a taboo for many, but early detection is of huge importance as diagnosing breast cancer in its early stages provides a greater chance of a full recovery, insha Allah. That’s why it is very important to know your body and conduct regular self-examinations. You don’t need to go through any training to know how to examine yourself, however, there is plenty of literature available online and in hospital leaflets that provide instructions on how to examine yourself. You should know how your breast feels normally to be able to spot any irregularity, such as lumps, itching, pain, change in the appearance of breast or nipples, nipple discharge and retraction or swelling and redness of skin. Not every lump or abnormality we discover necessarily means cancer, but if we are unsure about our findings, we should always consult a doctor. We should never miss a screening if invited for one; mammography is a simple, non-invasive test which helps in detecting changes by providing an x-ray image.
Allah (SWT) has given us a body and we have responsibility to keep it healthy; Islam promotes a healthy lifestyle. October is the month of breast cancer awareness so let each of us learn about the disease and spread the knowledge to our sisters, daughters and mothers. With the help and guidance of Allah (SWT), let us beat breast cancer so that no sister affected by it would feel stigmatised or left alone with her burden.
J.Samia Mair discusses the growing concern regarding breast cancer and provides some vital information of screening, detection and treatment.
From a pregnancy pause to menopause – the changes in a woman’s body during this period are as dynamic as they are vast. Dr. Ayesha Jacub discusses key preventative steps towards ensuring optimal health and diverting disease.
Klaudia Khan is a Muslim writer living with her husband and three daughters in the UK.