How beating breast cancer changed the lives of four women in the Middle East

Participants take part in the Pink Caravan Ride in Dubai on February 28, 2018, a UAE breast cancer initiative. (AFP/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 30 October 2021

How beating breast cancer changed the lives of four women in the Middle East

  • Gloria Halim, Cristina Polo, Sapna Venugopal and Bharti Rao have one thing in common: they are breast-cancer survivors
  • October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when survivors fundraise, offer support and encourage women to self-check

DUBAI: Gloria Halim, Cristina Polo, Sapna Venugopal and Bharti Rao come from very different backgrounds but they have one thing in common: they are all breast-cancer survivors who emerged from their battles with the disease with a new outlook on life and a desire to help others.

The four women, who are in their 40s and 50s, are among the millions of women worldwide each year who are diagnosed with some form of breast cancer and embark on a difficult journey of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy to overcome what can be a fatal illness.

Beyond the physical side effects of the treatments, the experience of fighting and beating cancer can have a profound emotional effect on women. Indeed, medical practitioners say the vast majority of patients emerge from treatment with a greater willingness to extend a helping hand to others.

Many also take what is often seen as a second chance as a sign to change the direction of their lives, taking on new challenges or switching to a new career path.

British citizen Gloria Halim, for example, was working in the information technology sector in the UK when she discovered she had breast cancer 14 years ago. Now in her mid-40s, she is a chief wellness officer in the corporate world and a certified holistic health practitioner living in Dubai.

Breast cancer, known to be the most common cancer in women worldwide, is the leading cause of death among Saudi women, according to a retrospective epidemiological study conducted in 2012. (Shutterstock)

“For me, the key information is that prevention is possible and is important,” Halim told Arab News this month, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Having gone through what I’ve been through, there is no way I want anybody else to go through it.”

Halim said she has come to appreciate the importance of good physical, emotional and mental health in helping to reduce stress and maintain a strong immune system.

“We are not built to be in fight-or-flight mode constantly,” she said. “It takes a long time to get to the point where the human body says: ‘I’ve had enough. I can’t move.’ The immune system goes down, inflammation of the bodily organs goes up, an environment for disease grows.”

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world. As of December last year, 7.8 million surviving women had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years, according to the World Health Organization. In 2020, about 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide and 685,000 died from the disease.

In Saudi Arabia, of the 24,485 cases of cancer recorded in 2018, 14.8 percent involved breast cancer, making it the most common form of cancer in the Kingdom. Of the 4,707 cancer cases recorded in the UAE in the same year, 22.4 percent were breast cancer.

L-R: Bharti Rao, Cristina Polo and Sapna Venugopal who all beat breast cancer. (Supplied)

While there was little improvement in breast cancer mortality figures between the 1930s and 1970s, survival rates began to rise in several countries from the 1980s on, thanks to early detection programs and new and improved treatments.

A growing body of research and significant medical advances continue to improve the prognosis for millions of women with the disease. But perhaps the most important development has been the increase in public awareness and the willingness of women to check themselves regularly and seek help early if they notice a potential problem.

Cristina Polo, from France, was 43 and living in Dubai when she noticed a lump in her breast in 2018. Determined to see her daughter, who was six at the time and the youngest of three siblings, grow up and have children of her own, she sought treatment immediately.

“Since cancer treatment, I have had a thirst for life,” she told Arab News. “I have this urge to do things in life that I kept postponing or put aside, saying I would do them later.”

Like Halim, Polo viewed her victory over cancer as an opportunity to change course. After completing her treatment, she resigned from a senior position in Dubai’s hospitality industry, began a course in digital marketing, earned a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, and established a blog, called Cancer Majlis, devoted to cancer awareness.


* 2.3m women diagnosed with breast cancer worldwide in 2020.

* 685,000 breast cancer deaths globally in 2020.

(Source: WHO)

She said she spent many years before she was confronted with cancer worrying about “what ifs” and putting off making changes.

“Then, boom, the diagnosis came,” Polo said. “Suddenly, all this ‘what if, what if, what if’ became ‘what else, what else, what else can I explore?’”

Polo moved to Paris last year, where she teaches English at a French hospitality school and is a consultant for the travel and hospitality industry. She also enjoys sculpting and painting in her spare time and does voluntary work with recovering cancer patients, helping them to plan their post-cancer lives by developing new skills in the arts.

Sapna Venugopal had a similar desire to help others following her cancer diagnosis in Sept. 2017 at the age of 46 while living in Dubai. So she began volunteering to visit patients undergoing chemotherapy in the city, and donating a portion of her income as a jewelry designer and from furniture restoration to a cancer charity in her native India.

Despite the many awareness campaigns launched by governments and charities the world over, women are still often left in shock when they receive a breast cancer diagnosis.

Pink umbrellas decorate the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health in the capital Beirut as part of a national campaign for the public awareness of breast cancer. (AFP/File Photo)

“At the very beginning everybody thinks they have just been handed a death sentence, which they haven’t,” Elsbeth Bentley, a nurse at Dubai’s Mediclinic City Hospital, told Arab News. She is one of the few specialist breast cancer nurses in the UAE, who undergo an extra year of training to teach them how to help with the specific needs of breast cancer patients, with a main focus on communication skills.

“Research shows that after the word ‘cancer’ has been mentioned in a meeting with a doctor, most people will only retain some 20 percent of what they are told, because it freezes the brain and there is this feeling that it is happening to somebody else and they are not connected with it,” Bentley added.

Regardless of background and social status, all women react to the diagnosis in a similar way, said Bissi Punnackel-Sivaraman, a breast care nurse at King’s College Hospital in Dubai.

“It is a stressful period,” she told Arab News. “Most of the time patients will be in shock upon diagnosis, followed by anger, anxiety, fear and loneliness. Some of the patients will be in denial and it will take some time for them to accept the diagnosis, as it happens unexpectedly.

“Initial reaction will be more or less the same. But taking it in and coping with the treatment can be slightly different, as each individual is unique and it can depend on their personal, family and occupational backgrounds.”

Bharti Rao, from India, recalled feeling “absolutely numb” and slipping into a state of denial when cancer was diagnosed in 2018, the year she turned 40, while living in Dubai.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa is lit up in pink to raise awareness and funds to fight breast cancer. (AFP/File Photo)

“But I didn’t sit on it for long because I understood that the more I go into denial, the more I am being pushed toward darkness,” she told Arab News.

Rao said she drew much of her resolve to seek treatment and beat the disease from her husband, parents, daughters and in-laws.

“I fought physically but they fought with me mentally and physiologically,” she said. “And that is where my battle was won. My day started with a smile and ended with gratitude.”

Rao worked in the banking sector but left her job before the cancer diagnosis and had worked as a volunteer helping children with autism. After beating the disease she developed a new outlook on life and is now a certified holistic lifestyle coach who provides her services for free to friends and relatives in Dubai and other people they refer to her, helping them during their emotional journeys while fighting cancer.

There is clearly an overriding sense among many breast-cancer survivors that they have been given a second chance in life to take on fresh challenges and pursue experiences they had long put on hold. Many also emerge with a sense of gratitude and a desire to give something back in some way.

“They want to see some good come out of it,” said nurse Bentley. “Life is not going to go back to exactly how it was. Something in them has changed and that means they don’t want to accept the things they accepted before.”

Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency

Updated 58 min 52 sec ago

Merchant ship damaged by drone attack in Red Sea: UK agency

  • Vessels in and around the Red Sea have come under repeated attack for months by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen

DUBAI: A merchant ship was damaged by a drone attack in the Red Sea near Yemen early Sunday morning, though no injuries were reported, according to a British maritime security agency.
Vessels in and around the Red Sea have come under repeated attack for months by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who say they are acting in support of Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
The attack occurred about 65 nautical miles (120 kilometers) west of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, said the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy.


“The Master of a merchant vessel reports being hit by uncrewed aerial system (UAS), resulting in damage to the vessel. All crew members are reported safe, and the vessel is proceeding to its next port of call,” said a bulletin from the agency.
“Authorities are investigating,” it added, offering no attribution for the attack.
On Saturday, the US Central Command, which has carried out retaliatory strikes against the Houthis over their attacks on shipping, said it had destroyed three nautical drones belonging to the group over the past 24 hours.
It also said the group had launched three anti-ship missiles into the Gulf of Aden, but no injuries or significant damage were reported.

Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says

Updated 23 June 2024

Israeli strikes kill at least 42 in Gaza, enclave’s government media office says

  • One Israeli strike on houses in Al-Shati, a historic refugee camp, killed 24 people
  • Another 18 Palestinians killed in a strike on houses in the Al-Tuffah neighborhood

CAIRO: At least 42 people were killed in Israeli attacks on districts of Gaza City in the north of the Palestinian enclave on Saturday, the director of the Hamas-run government media office said.

One Israeli strike on houses in Al-Shati, one of the Gaza Strip’s eight historic refugee camps, killed 24 people, Ismail Al-Thawabta said. Another 18 Palestinians were killed in a strike on houses in the Al-Tuffah neighborhood.

The Israeli military released a brief statement saying: “A short while ago, IDF fighter jets struck two Hamas military infrastructure sites in the area of Gaza City.”

It said more details would be released soon.

Exchanges of fire across the Lebanese border between Israel and the powerful Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah have also escalated in recent weeks, raising fears of an even wider war.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Friday that the cross-border hostilities must not turn Lebanon into “another Gaza,” warning of the risk of triggering a catastrophe “beyond imagination.”

His warning came as Israel stepped up its strikes in the Gaza Strip, where one hospital in Gaza City reported at least 30 dead on Friday.

Fighting continued Saturday morning, with witnesses reporting gunbattles between militants and Israeli forces in Gaza City.

And in the city’s Zeitun neighborhood, Israeli helicopters fired at militants, witnesses said.

The Israeli military meanwhile said troops continued to carry out operations in central Gaza “eliminating several armed terrorists and dismantling terrorist infrastructure in the area.”

“Fighter jets and additional aircraft struck numerous terror targets in the Gaza Strip, including armed terrorists, weapons storage facilities, and additional terrorist infrastructure,” it added.

In southern Gaza, the ICRC on Friday said 22 dead and 45 wounded people were taken to a Red Cross field hospital after shelling with “heavy calibre projectiles” near its Gaza office.

“Firing so dangerously close to humanitarian structures puts the lives of civilians and humanitarians at risk,” the ICRC said on X.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory blamed the shelling on Israel, saying there were 25 killed and 50 wounded in the southern coastal Al-Mawasi area, where thousands of displaced people have been sheltering in tents.

An Israeli military spokesman did not acknowledge any role in the incident but said it was “under review.”

In the north of the Strip, the director of Gaza City’s Al-Ahli hospital was quoted by the territory’s health ministry as reporting 30 dead in strikes.

“It has been a difficult and brutal day in Gaza City. So far, around 30 martyrs have arrived at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital,” doctor Fadel Naeem was quoted as saying.

Civil defense agency spokesman Mahmud Basal said five municipal workers died when a garage in the city was bombed.

Lebanon-based Hamas ally Hezbollah meanwhile claimed a number of attacks on Israeli troops and positions near the border on Friday, including two using drones.

The Israeli army said it had carried out multiple retaliatory strikes on both days.

Israeli jets on Friday struck a “Hezbollah military structure in the area of Khiam, a Hezbollah military post in the area of Mais Al-Jabal, and Hezbollah terrorist infrastructure in the areas of Taybeh and Tallouseh in southern Lebanon,” the army said in a statement.

Experts are divided on the prospect of a wider war, almost nine months into Israel’s campaign to eradicate Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Amid the escalating exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel’s military said Tuesday that plans for an offensive in Lebanon had been “approved and validated.”

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said “no place” in Israel would “be spared our rockets” in a wider war, and also threatened nearby European Union member Cyprus.

Citing the “bellicose rhetoric” on both sides, UN chief Guterres warned Friday that the risk of all-out war was real.

“One rash move — one miscalculation — could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border, and frankly, beyond imagination,” he said.

Israel’s ally the United States has appealed for de-escalation.

The violence on the Lebanon border began after the October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza. That attack resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

As of Thursday, Israel’s retaliatory offensive had killed at least 37,431 people, also mostly civilians, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Months of negotiations toward a truce and a hostage release have failed to make headway, but mediator Qatar insisted Friday it was still working to “bridge the gap” between Israel and Hamas.

The war has destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure and left residents short of food, fuel and other essentials.

On June 16 the army said it would implement a daily “tactical pause of military activity” in a southern Gaza corridor to facilitate aid delivery.

But on Friday Richard Peeperkorn of the World Health Organization said “we did not see an impact on the humanitarian supplies coming in.”

Hisham Salem in Jabalia camp said: “The markets... used to be full, but now there is nothing left. I go around the entire market and I can’t find a kilo of onions, and if I do... it costs 140 shekels ($37).”

Doctor Thanos Gargavanis, a WHO trauma surgeon and emergency officer, said the UN in Gaza was trying to “operate in an unworkable environment.”

According to the WHO, 17 of the 36 hospitals in Gaza are operational, but only partially.

Israel’s military on Friday identified two more soldiers killed in Gaza, bringing the death toll since ground operations began to at least 312.

The war has revived a global push for Palestinians to be given a state of their own.

Armenia on Friday declared its recognition of “the State of Palestine,” prompting Israel to summon its ambassador for “a severe reprimand.”

Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming

Updated 23 June 2024

Algerian women pioneer eco-friendly farming

  • The plant ecology and biodiversity graduates now run one of the country’s rare ecological plots of land, where the produce is grown in harmony with the broader ecosystem and without using pesticides

ALGIERS: Ibtissem Mahtout and Amira Messous pick fresh strawberries and tomatoes on the eco-friendly smallholding the two women are working near Algiers, a pioneering initiative in Algeria’s male-dominated agricultural sector.
After graduating from university four years ago, they left the capital and started working on the small patch of land in Douaouda, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the west.
“As soon as I’m in the field I’m happy,” said Messous, 28, holding a bundle of fresh beetroot.
“From morning to night, we’re here. To me, it’s the most beautiful job in the world.”
The plant ecology and biodiversity graduates now run one of the country’s rare ecological plots of land, where the produce is grown in harmony with the broader ecosystem and without using pesticides.

Amira Messous (L) and Ibtissem Mahtout (C) speak to a customer at their vegetable and fruit stand during the Friday market at an educational farm in Zeralda on May 30, 2024. (AFP)

Messous said it was challenging at first to “have to integrate” into a sector in which most people who work the land are men.
According to local media, as of last October just four percent of workers registered with the Chamber of Agriculture in Tipaza province where their land is were women.
But some “male farmers are happy to see educated women working the land,” said Messous.
“They take the time to explain things to us, and it brings more value to their own work.”
Her 29-year-old partner, Mahtout, recalls that they launched the project with just 60,000 Algerian dinars (around $445) — “enough to buy basic tools” — after renting the patch of land.

With the help of Torba, an association that promotes ecological farming in Algeria, they “learned to plant, to sow, to work the soil.”
Today, their 1,300-square-meter farm even employs one male worker full-time — and up to eight part-timers at harvest time.
When they are not in the fields themselves, the two women make full use of social media to sell their produce.

Ibtissem Mahtout (C) speaks with a customer who has come to pick up or buy their produce, at the Friday market at an educational farm in Zeralda, west of Algiers on May 30, 2024. (AFP)

On Instagram, they advertise their baskets of seasonal fruits and vegetables each week, and take orders for the produce on WhatsApp.
Come Friday, the first day of the Algerian weekend, clients pick up their orders at a larger farm in nearby Zeralda, where other smallholders also sell produce including flowers.
“We want to eat something healthy from time to time,” said Fatma Zohra, a 72-year-old loyal customer and subscriber to the small farm’s social media account.
“I found these girls very nice, and when I discovered they sell to subscribers, I wanted to encourage them.”
Each week, the pair sell between 10 and 30 baskets of fruit and vegetables that are in season.
The farm in Zeralda where they market their produce is also educational, and runs themed programs for children.
In addition to the Friday farmers’ market, it is also a meeting space for local families and offers cooking classes, entertainment and cultural events.

Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government

Updated 23 June 2024

Tens of thousands rally against Israeli government

  • Anti-government protest organization Hofshi Israel estimated more than 150,000 people attended the rally, calling it the biggest since the Gaza war began

TEL AVIV: Tens of thousands of protesters waving Israeli flags and chanting slogans against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday, demanding new elections and the return of hostages held in Gaza.
Large protests have occurred in the Israeli city on a weekly basis over Netanyahu’s handling of the nearly nine-month-old war in Gaza started by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.
Many protesters held signs reading “Crime Minister” and “Stop the War” as people poured into the biggest Israeli city’s main thoroughfare.
“I am here because I am afraid of the future of my grandchild. There will be no future for them if we don’t go out and get rid of the horrible government,” said 66-year-old contractor Shai Erel.
“All of the rats in the Knesset... I wouldn’t let any one of them be a guard of a kindergarten.”
Anti-government protest organization Hofshi Israel estimated more than 150,000 people attended the rally, calling it the biggest since the Gaza war began.
Some demonstrators lay on the ground covered in red paint in the city’s Democracy Square to protest what they say is the death of the country’s democracy under Netanyahu.
In an address to the crowd, a former head of Israel’s domestic Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, condemned Netanyahu as Israel’s “worst prime minister.”
Many are frustrated with the country’s right-wing coalition, which includes Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and other far-right ultra-nationalists, accusing it of prolonging the war in Gaza and putting the country’s security and hostages at risk.
Yoram, a 50-year-old tour guide who declined to give his last name, said he was attending every weekly protest as Israel needed elections “yesterday” because of Netanyahu.
“I really hope that the government collapses,” he said. “If we go to the original date of elections in 2026, it is not going to be a democratic election.”
Hamas militants seized 251 hostages on October 7, of whom Israel believes 116 remain in Gaza, including 41 who the army says are dead.
A separate Tel Aviv rally on Saturday night drew thousands of relatives and supporters of the hostages.
The attack on Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza has killed at least 37,551 people, also mostly civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.


Israeli forces strap wounded Palestinian to jeep during raid

Updated 23 June 2024

Israeli forces strap wounded Palestinian to jeep during raid

  • A video circulating on social media and verified by Reuters showed a Palestinian resident of Jenin, Mujahed Azmi, on the jeep that passes through two ambulances

JERUSALEM: Israeli army forces strapped a wounded Palestinian man to the hood of a military jeep during an arrest raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Saturday. A video circulating on social media and verified by Reuters showed a Palestinian resident of Jenin, Mujahed Azmi, on the jeep that passes through two ambulances.
The Israeli military in a statement said Israeli forces were fired at and exchanged fire, wounding a suspect and apprehending him.
Soldiers then violated military protocol, the statement said. “The suspect was taken by the forces while tied on top of a vehicle,” it said.
The military said the “conduct of the forces in the video of the incident does not conform to the values” of the Israeli military and that the incident will be investigated and dealt with.
The individual was transferred to medics for treatment, the military said.
Reuters was able to match the location from corroborating and verified footage shared on social media that shows a vehicle transporting an individual tied on top of a vehicle in Jenin. The date was confirmed by an eyewitness interviewed by Reuters.
According to the family of Azmi, there was an arrest raid, and he was injured during the raid, and when the family asked for an ambulance, the army took Mujahed, strapped him on the hood and drove off.
Violence in the West Bank, already on the rise before the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, has escalated since then with frequent army raids on militant groups, rampages by Jewish settlers in Palestinian villages, and deadly Palestinian street attacks.