With multimedia breast cancer awareness campaigns, women all around are paying closer attention to the importance of early detection. For Fara Aida, it was instinct. Her voice fell to a whisper when I asked her about the first time she discovered she had breast cancer. “You know your body. I had fever, coughs, and a sore throat. I was growing thinner,” Fara says. “That was when I decided to go for a checkup.” She went to a hospital for a diagnosis and first opinion – the doctors discovered a cyst.
“It took me a few months to break the news to my mother,” Fara recalls. “Mothers will always worry about their children. I wanted to break the news to her properly – give her preparation and time to cool down. I didn’t want her to worry.” Understandably, her mother was anxious, and it took Fara at least half an hour to reassure her. “It’s how you explain your situation to them. Take as long as you need to think about it: from one week to a month or even longer, as long as you remain level-headed.” With family also comes well-meant advice, but more often than not, it does more harm than help.
For two years, Fara strayed from what the doctor advised. “She was scared when the doctor recommended chemotherapy. It was probably the way the doctor broke the news,” Fara’s husband Redza says. “The doctor of the first hospital they visited spooked her with vivid descriptions of chemotherapy. She was terrified,” Redza recalls the moment Fara broke down. “She came back from the diagnosis – I had just came back from work, and she started crying and talking about how she did not want to undergo chemotherapy.”
“She started crying and talking about how she did not want to undergo chemotherapy.”
That was when their disagreement started. Redza was insistent that Fara undergo chemotherapy, but Fara, after listening to one too many horror stories, felt strongly against the treatment. Instead, she turned to herbal remedies.
Redza played the part of a supporting spouse by finally accepting her decision. He provided her with the moral support she needed, but deep down inside, he was worried. “Every day I was living in fear – the fear of waking up and not sure if I’d find my wife…” Redza trails off. “It’s an eerie feeling. I never want experience that with Fara again. Ours was not a normal life.”
“Every day I was living in fear – the fear of waking up and not sure if I’d find my wife…”
“Fara can be very dedicated to something once she sets her mind on it.” Redza thinks that as a spouse, he needs to act as a human strain to filter all the information or advice given to the both of them regarding cancer. He also believes in educating oneself as much as possible – constant reading and researching helped. The couple poured over books and articles about herbal medicine. It came to a point when Redza felt himself swayed to believe in the wonders of herbal medicine.
However in the span of those two years, the cancer hit stage four. “The fever lapsed, but the tumours were still growing,” says Fara. When she discovered the tumours were spreading to her back, she decided to make a change. They visited Dr Azura Rozila Ahmad of Beacon International Specialist Center. This time round, Fara had her mind set on clinical treatment. She took a PET scan. Surprisingly, the lumps were all surface wounds – and it had only spread to a small part in her lungs. “If the lump is cancerous, it shows up in the PET scan as an orange cyst,” Fara explains. It wasn’t too serious. Whether it was the herbal medicine or her positive outlook, Fara considers herself lucky.
Chemotherapy remains one of the most common post-diagnose treatments. Fara took a month to prepare for the big step towards chemotherapy. She received her fair share of advice from family members and friends about the side effects of chemotherapy, which only served to confused, frustrated, and demoralised her. “Don’t listen to the inexperienced. Listen to yourself. You’re the patient, you’re the one suffering, you’re the one making the choice about your body.” During chemotherapy, she says the best thing to do is to focus on the four-month treatment. In a way, it’s like ripping off a band aid. “Don’t think about it. Don’t dwell too much on what it’s going to be like, how weak your body is going to be. Focus on doing things that you enjoy.”
Thanks to widespread film and television, the common side effects of chemotherapy are known to many – particularly the persistent feeling of being physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. This was not the case for Fara. “After her first chemo session, she asked me to bring her out to the mall for shopping,” Redza recalls as Fara cracks a smile. “Just last week, we went to Port Dickson for paddle boarding!” Redza pulls up a photo he snapped of Fara – all smiles dressed in a wetsuit, next to a paddle board planted head-first in the sand on the beach. You would never have guessed she was undergoing chemotherapy. I learn that she is an active outdoor enthusiast –of her favourite past times are kayaking, swimming, hiking, and yoga.
To date, Fara has completed her seventh chemotherapy session. The couple has bigger plans for their paddle boarding journey. “We’re going to paddle board from Marang to Kapas,” Redza says, referring to the town and island in Terengganu. “I’m going to film it, upload it onto YouTube – we want to be an inspiration to cancer patients and survivors.”
This article originally appeared in Marie Claire Malaysia’s October 2017 issue.