I’m Renee Aziz Ahmad. I’ve had two different types of cancer. In 2001, I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, stage two. In 2014, I had second cancer, unrelated to breast cancer. It’s called an Acinic cell carcinoma, and it was in the parotid gland inside my face. So I had surgery to remove the tumour. In 2016, breast cancer appeared again in my lungs, considered stage four breast cancer. I introduce myself generally as someone who is living with metastatic breast cancer.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Back in 2001, I found the lump by accident. I was going to have a shower. I had taken off my clothes and passed in front of a mirror. Then I noticed there was something strange about my left breast. It looked different. On further inspection, I realised that there was a lump there. The next day, I went to see a doctor nearest to the office where I was working. And they did a mammogram and an ultrasound and confirmed that there was a lump. But they needed to do a biopsy to find out if this was actually cancer or not. Two days later, I met with a surgeon at the same hospital. We agreed that I would do a lumpectomy to remove the tumour and send it for biopsy. Since the lump was close to the surface, right next to my nipple, the surgeon was hopeful that she could remove everything in one goal and that I would not need further surgery. But there wasn’t a sufficient margin around the tumour. So, I had to do a total mastectomy later as the biopsy results showed stage two breast cancer.
My first reaction
I was pretty lucky to have good friends and my family around me. Nevertheless, it did come as a shock. When I got the result that it was breast cancer, I remember breaking down in tears. I ran out of the office and headed straight for the ladies’ toilet. And then I cried, but my sister was with me. It helped a lot having my family and my friends around me.
I had eight cycles of chemotherapy. The first half was like standard chemo. In the second half, we switched to a single drug which was more effective and had fewer side effects. After domesticomy, I did the adjuvant treatment. So I had eight cycles of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. I did 25 radiotherapy sessions.
I took some antioxidant vitamins on my surgeon’s advice, but that was all. I stuck to medical treatment as my recovery plan. Yeah. So after I completed all the adjacent treatments for about nine months, I was put on tamoxifen. Being hormone receptor-positive, I was a candidate for chemoxygen, which I took for the next five years.
Managing my emotional well being
I talked to my friends. When I started losing my hair, my friend and I went to the barber together to shave my head. I enjoyed being bald. Not many ladies can have an excuse to walk around with no hair on their heads.
Experience with the doctors and other medical staff
I would say it was excellent. In Malaysia, we have a dual system. We have government and private hospitals. Government hospitals charge very little. In my case, I had insurance cover, so I opted for a private hospital which worked very well for me. Both in government hospitals, as well as the private hospitals, the standard of medical care is pretty good.
Things that helped me and made me happy
Coffee and cake made me happy. My good friends took me to have some coffee and cake. I was also privileged that I could take an extended medical leave on full pay for up to three months. It helped a lot. I could focus on myself, my treatment, and my emotional state.
I never heard that I was cancer-free. I continued with my tamoxifen. And at the end of five years, I realised I didn’t have to take this anymore. In 2005, I went climbing mount Kilimanjaro. In January 2005, I reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. And from that moment onwards, I knew I was okay.
What motivated me
I am still living with breast cancer. It has metastasised. But I found that there is always hope. I think one of the things that keeps me happy and positive is physical exercise. Also, I stay mentally alert through work and what I do to occupy my time. My friends and family are always there for me. So they play a big part in helping me deal with my situation and keep moving forward.
I think my lifestyle changes have come and gone. But I try to remind myself to eat healthier and smaller portions. It helps control the weight as well. The most significant change was probably regular exercise.
Life lessons that I learnt
I think the key is not just to give up hope. There is always hope. And I think as long as we have hope, there are things we can do, there are people who can help us if we’re having problems or challenges, whether it’s emotional, spiritual or even financial, there’s always somewhere we can go to, to get help. So we should try our best to overcome these hurdles. Because if I had given up when I was told I had cancer in 2001, I wouldn’t be here today. But I have had 20 good years of real adventure, some setbacks, but more experience and good people around me.
Message to cancer patients and caregivers
No matter how grumpy and irritable the cancer patient gets, caregivers should not forget to look after themselves. Sometimes you need a break, and you need to rest as well. Your health and your well-being are just as important. It would help if you looked after yourself as well.
We’re not supposed to be here forever. We’re not supposed to live forever. Whether you have cancer or not, I think you should live your life to the fullest. Enjoy it as much as you can. Try to do your best and leave the rest in God’s hands