I am Dr. Ismat Gabula, a radiologist. I have spent the past three decades in the field of health care, working in diagnostic ultrasound, and have also participated actively in the field of research, working with Pfizer India and Dr. Shaw Padaria as a project coordinator on multiple projects. I have started “BSE for Life” which is an initiative to encourage women to take care of themselves proactively. This helps women to do breast self-examination to support early diagnosis, easier treatment and significantly improve the prognosis for breast cancer. In my spare time, I like to let my creative instincts run wild on canvas.
Symptoms and diagnosis
I have a family history of breast cancer. So, I was very careful throughout my life. From a young age, I used to have nodular breasts or lumpy breasts. I used to get regular checkups. After the age of 40, I started mammograms every year. I also did my regular breast self-examination. Then in 2017, I missed my mammogram. And I was a little lax with my breast self-examination. After three months, I found a lump incidentally during a bath. I knew instantly that it was definitely something. Then I went for the examination or checkup. I had stage two B breast cancer. There was a node lump that was about two inches in size just below the axon.
Treatments underwent and side effects
I had chemotherapy and it was initially okay. We have very good medications now, and they work well. There were side effects, like nausea, the brain fog that sits, etc. Initially, I felt I was fine. What happens is first you don’t feel anything, then a phase of pain comes and then you get weak. Every three weeks, I had Taxol followed by ACT. It was terrible. So when I was given a medicine by the doctor which I took after going home but reacted really badly. My hands and feet were on fire. I developed a rare condition of hand and foot syndrome. It doesn’t happen to everybody. So, he gave me a dose of lesser strength so that I could tolerate it.
I still have neuropathy in my hands and feet. The other thing was the hair. My hair started falling which hurt really as the clumps of hair came off. And then I had a mastectomy.
But after the chemo, my body is not that strong. What happens is when they take out the lymph node, the drainage from the arm is not really very efficient. And if the lymphatic drainage is not good, you can end up having lymphedema. So, I took physiotherapy which helped me a lot. After the surgery, I went for radiation. My skin was very sensitive and so the burning sensation was insane. I could not bear it.
Importance of self-examination
It is advised to do a breast self-examination every month for a woman after the age of 20. Also, you should get a clinical breast examination by a trained person after the age of 20, once a year. Also, you should do a mammogram, depending on how you are placed. If you have a family history, then you get your clinical doctor to assess you. Then accordingly, you should get diagnosed or get your test done. You have to remember that mammograms are the diagnostic tool to pick up cancer very early. That is a big advantage. 99% will be picked up. 1% won’t. You can be that 1% which will not get picked up.
So, you should do a self-examination every month, if there is any change, you will pick it up early. It will help in the early pickup of breast cancer. There is 100% survival for five years. The first step is to check yourself regularly. It is not very difficult and takes only ten minutes. There are various YouTube videos. 80% of the lumps you will find will not be cancer, but 20% will. So it’s important to get checked out.
Spreading awareness with “BSE for life”
I took up my call to help other women. I wanted to spread breast health. I started a program called BSE for Life. BSE stands for breast self-examination which is something a woman does for herself, by herself in the privacy of her own home. If you can go for checkups for cough and cold then you can also check your breast. The idea is to say I have this lump, please help me and check out whether this is normal or not.
I talk to people about this via BSE for life. I talk mostly in English but I do it in Hindi. It’s not like the rich are going to get it or the poor are not going to get it. It can happen to anyone. Usually, women are just sitting on it and thinking if it doesn’t hurt then it’s not cancer. I think it’s important to know initially that cancer will not cause pain. I think if I have helped even one woman then I have actually achieved something.
Getting on with life
I do so many things to keep myself busy. I love painting so I paint and mostly paint landscapes, birds, and flowers. I gifted the paintings to my friends and family.
Recently, I started a program with my husband to educate children. We met for a holiday in Kashmir and we met a school teacher who was also committed to his children regarding this program. So we send text notebooks to 300 art students in Kashmir. Then again, we managed to send around 63 children’s textbooks. Now we look forward to having libraries across Mumbai in the municipal gardens.