“It was not just a hard experience; it was not just a tough health challenge. It was a moment of revelation – a moment where I decided that I would have not just to beat my illness but also to abandon anything that goes against my nature. It was the moment I decided to follow my heart,” said Ghada Salah Gad.
A breast cancer survivor who decided to turn the tables on her illness by investing time and energy in promoting awareness, early detection and support mechanisms for potential and diagnosed breast cancer patients, Salah had this month issued the first edition of her book “The Female Who Saved Me: My trip with breast cancer”.
Issued by Dar El-Shorouk, in Arabic, Salah’s book is a work of inspiration for women who have to face one of the most curable forms of cancer, but still a ‘stigmatising’ strain of this harsh disease.
“You know, we are brought up to appreciate our bodies in a certain way; it is something we sort of believe in. That we have to be slim and with perfect proportions. And when this is challenged, it's tough,” she said.
Salah’s book is exactly about that difficult and delicate search for a balance that she had to have between accepting the possible impact that her lumpectomy might have on her and the effort to accentuate her beauty and her “womanhood” in the way she wants.
“It was not easy; I mean, I am not sure how it happened because it just came to me and I just followed my heart on it. I decided that no matter what, I will try to be beautiful and that I would not reduce my entire womanhood or my beauty as a woman to this operation,” Salah said.
In her book, Salah talks about her decision to spend a few hours at the hairdresser’s and to have a pedicure just before going to her operation. She talks about how she prepared for the impact chemotherapy was bound to have on her body when she went shopping for new colourful outfits and headscarves and wigs, which she decided to abandon one summer evening when she was going with her sister to attend a concert and just went with her bald head and makeup – “with no scarf in my bag to make sure that I would not have cold feet about going out the way I was during my therapy.”
Salah was not sure about writing the book and sharing so many of her feelings, worries and demons publicly. “When I decided to write the book, I had already made several public appearances to talk about my journey and about how I made it through. That was not easy, but I thought it would be helpful for other women who have to go on the same path,” she said.
However, Salah added: “Writing the book was much more difficult because I had decided to be more open about what I felt and what I feared; it was important that I did this, I think, because I am sure the fears and feelings I had gone through are very similar to those faced by most other women who had to deal with breast cancer.”
In her book, Salah tells women who are still being diagnosed or who are already being treated that having faith is the most essential part of beating the illness. She also shares what she thinks are ways to develop a sense of security despite the fear.
“Listen, it really varies. Some women would get their sense of security from the love of a husband who just holds his wife’s hands and tell her that he loves her and he finds her beautiful no matter what; other women find security in a supportive brother or sister or in the dependence her children have upon her,” she argued.
For Salah, it was family and friends. And family was more about her sister and kids rather than her husband.
“And I guess that this is something that women need to know: if you don’t have your husband right beside, showing you the kind of compassion you hope for, and if you are not married at all, you could still make it if you hold on,” she said.
For Salah, the experience “with” breast cancer, first as patient and then as a survivor and awareness campaigner, triggered awareness not just with her "inner woman" but also her "inner sense of strength."
“I decided that in as much as I managed to tame my illness and defeat it, I should be able to break free from anything that I was not comfortable with; this is what happens when you recall your sense of strength; it is there for you to help you face things that you might have been too scared to face,” she said.
Direct from chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Salah decided that she had found the woman inside and that this woman was not content with a marriage that was not emotionally rewarding. She decided to regain her single status with none of the worries she once had about being “socially qualified as a divorced woman." "If managed to walk around with my bald head I could walk around without my wedding ring,” she said.
Ultimately, Salah said that a great deal of her campaigning efforts are dedicated to help women to be happy and to be capable of living life with inner peace, because “this is the first line of defence against falling prey to breast cancer.”
“Of course, it is genetic and all of this, but ultimately inner peace is a great deterrent against illness and a great reservoir of support for us when we have to go through a tough fight against a tough illness,” Salah argued.
Having had the privilege of decent health insurance and sufficient financial resources to cope with costly medical bills, Salah is aware that an adequate health budget is not something most cancer patients in Egypt have.
This is why she is investing time and energy with the Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt that help provides women with support for regular mammography check-ups, therapy, psychological support, wigs, prostheses, yoga and even lead the way towards possible reconstruction surgery for women who have to go through full mastectomy, in cooperation with the National Cancer Institute.
“It is a tough fight that needs lots of resources and I am really convinced that helping women with the medical bills is a great help. It is tough enough as it is for women who are covered by insurance,” she said.
Salah is convinced that there is “certainly big room” for more donations for foundations that help with early detection and prompt therapy for breast cancer.
She is also convinced that there is a room for wider awareness campaigns that might help women not just be diagnosed early, to make the therapy path shorter and less expensive, but also spared from the illness by reducing the instigating factors.
“It is a tough fight, but it is a fight that society could win, and I think survivors have a leading role there because nobody better than a woman who has been there could tell other women about how it feels to be on this rollercoaster and how it is really possible to pick up the pieces, even if one hits rock-bottom,” Salah said.