The first time I said these words out loud to someone, I actually broke down and cried. Why is it that cancer brings with it such a strange sense of guilt? As though it is some kind of punishment for past wrongdoings or misdeeds…
Someone once actually tried to suggest to me that this was the “true” reason for my cancer, because I had not led the “exemplary” lifestyle of a good Muslim woman. I prefer to believe that breast cancer was simply a sign, telling me to slow down and re-assess my priorities in life.
In September 2000, about a year before I found the lump in my breast, I climbed Mount Kinabalu with a group of friends to celebrate the new Millennium. We all succeeded in reaching the summit and naturally, in the warm glow of our achievement, we were soon talking about climbing another more challenging mountain, namely Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Needless to say, once I got home to my sedentary job back in KL, life fell into its usual routine and the idea of climbing the tallest mountain in Africa remained just that, an idea - Mere talk - Procrastination.
A year went by and the idea of Mount Kilimanjaro had completely left my mind. Then, I was diagnosed with a low-grade, infiltrative ductal carcinoma - breast cancer! I quickly resolved to listen to the advice of the doctors and I had a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. Somehow I managed to get through it all and then, in remission after nine months of fighting the cancer came the business of getting on with my life again.
Inevitably, a lot of changes had taken place in my body. I no longer had my left breast. I had gone into early menopause and was suffering the hot flashes and emotional mood swings that reportedly accompany the end of the menstrual cycles. I had also put on an incredible amount of weight, almost 20kg, due to a combination of steroid treatments, stopping smoking and what I now call “comfort eating”.
Although I tried not to show it, I was depressed and ironically, the thing that depressed me the most was the fact that I could not recognise the round, fat person who looked back at me whenever I stood in front of a mirror. So, as soon as my doctors gave me the green light, I joined a gym and began working out regularly, two or three times a week. It had very little impact though and after about a year, I was ready to just accept things as they were.
Then, out of the blue, the subject of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro came up again when a friend asked me if I would like to join him on an expedition to conquer the mountain they refer to as the “Roof of Africa”. I said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.
I changed my fitness goal and spent a year training to get ready for the challenge. I gained strength and stamina and yes, I lost weight. I started to feel good about myself again. I even got my employers to sponsor a group of colleagues and myself to make the 6-day climb and in return I offered to be interviewed and to talk about my experience as a breast cancer survivor.
On our first morning at the Springlands Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, I got up at dawn and stepped outside the hotel gates to take my first look at the mountain, standing in the distance, glaciers glowing in the early morning sun, there she was, Mount Kilimanjaro. I’d done the research so I knew that the success rate each year was only about 40%.
Deep inside I was terrified that I had come all this way just to fail and that I would have nothing inspirational to talk about on my return home. I told myself that there was nothing more that I could do except give it my best and hope that all the hard work and training would see me through.
We started our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro the next day from a place called Machame Gate. My fellow climbers, all men, understood why I was there and why this climb was so important to me. They had elected me as their team captain no less, and their support and encouragement, although silent, gave me strength. By the end of that first day, I had begun to relax and enjoy the expedition. Together with two other members of my team, I reached the summit four days later, and at 9:45 a.m. on 26 January 2005, I finally stood at Uhuru Peak, at 5,895 meters, the highest point on the mountain and in all of Africa!
When I got back to Malaysia, I did the television interviews and gave motivational talks as I had promised I would. Since then I have met other breast cancer survivors and doctors and caregivers who are genuinely inspired by my achievement. As amazing as it may sound, I feel that I have been given a gift - the opportunity to contribute to society by giving hope to other women who have been told that they too have breast cancer.
To me, death is part of the cycle of life. Fighting breast cancer has not been about defeating death. It has been about living life. Each day brings with it new possibilities and I want to embrace them all. In my lifetime, I dream of conquering other, higher mountains. Insyallah, I shall.