Lena Abdullah was 48 when she found a hard growth on her upper thigh. It grew rapidly, but as she experienced no pain, Lena assumed that everything would be fine when she underwent medical care to have her growth removed.
Yet, when her biopsy result returned five days later, the doctor informed her that she needed further treatment.
“What treatment?” she asked.
With that one word, Lena’s life changed irrevocably.
As a wife and mother of 4 grown-up children, Lena was used to being the bedrock for her family; she was the one they turned to for warmth, love and support. So, when she revealed to her immediate family members that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL, for short), they were shocked.
Recalling their faces that day, Lena says, “I knew then that I had to be very strong, for them as well as for myself.”
Being diagnosed with cancer is never easy, but Lena had to further deal with the fact that her cancer was of an aggressive nature. “The doctor said that I had diffuse large cell B-lymphoma,” she recalls.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) is a cancer that starts in the white blood cells (or lymphocytes). There are several types of NHL, and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), which was what Lena had, typically starts as a mass in a lymph node. This mass grows quickly, but often responds well to treatment. If you find a rapidly growing non-painful mass anywhere on your body, do seek medical attention immediately.
When she first received her diagnosis, she was shocked. “I was always healthy,” she says. “So how could I have cancer? I thought they were mistaken. Maybe they had given me someone else’s test results by accident.”
There was no mistake, unfortunately. Lena allowed herself several days to cry, but she soon pulled herself together for her own sake as well as her family’s.
“My doctor explained to me about my cancer, but at that time, I was in shock, so my brain probably took in only 20% of what I was told,” she remembers.
The next thing she did was to find out as much as she could about her cancer. This knowledge actually strengthened her resolve to stay strong and undergo treatment, while hoping for the best.
Going for chemo
Chemotherapy was not easy. Lena eventually lost her hair, eyebrows and even eyelashes, all of which struck a blow against her self-esteem. “There were days when I couldn’t stop myself from crying because I looked like an alien,” she recounts.
In such times, Lena says that it is important to stay strong. “I wanted to live, and I felt that my life was more precious than my hair, and eventually I came to terms with the changes in my appearance.” She even had fun trying out different fashion styles to go with her "new look".
Apart from the physical changes, chemotherapy also sapped her energy and spirit. “There were days when I was emotional and cranky,” Lena says, “because I was too ill or too tired to do what I normally did before I had cancer.”
Yet, she persevered. Her faith in God kept her strong, and the support she had from her friends and families was invaluable in keeping her hopes high, especially when she was feeling low and all seemed hopeless.
“I told myself that my cancer was like a toothache,” she says. “I stayed focused by pushing aside all thoughts of the pain and discomfort. Otherwise, I’d be unable to do anything all day!”
Today, it had been 6 years since she was declared free from cancer. “If someone with cancer were to ask me whether she should undergo chemo, I’d tell her 'yes',” she says. “It was not easy at all, but in the end, it was worth it.”
Paying it forward
Cancer has made Lena a mellower person. She says with a laugh that she is still as strong as she used to be before she was diagnosed with cancer but, now she appreciates life better.
While the fear of a relapse still lurks in the back of her mind, she prefers to live one day at a time. “There is little we can do to stop cancer from relapsing,” she explains. “We have to accept that and find a way to keep living despite our fear.”
Having survived cancer, Lena has developed a newfound appreciation for healthy living. Instead of taking her health for granted, she and her family have made some positive changes to their lifestyle. “My family and I make healthier choices now. We eat balanced meals, with fish and plenty of vegetables,” she says. Exercise is also very important, and she swims and walks to keep herself in good health.
As content and happy as she is today, she remembers vividly how lost she was during the early days of her fight against cancer, and how every show of support – even small ones – gave her strength and bolstered her spirit. Lena is determined to pay it forward – she now offers the same support and assistance to her fellow cancer patients.
“I had a neighbour, a 60-something breast cancer survivor, and I was in awe of how active and healthy she was,” Lena tells us. “She had a good attitude as well!”
Lena asked the woman to introduce her to the woman’s support group. That was how Lena found her new “family”: the Pink Unity sisterhood.
The Pink Unity
“The Pink Unity is a sisterhood of cancer survivors who come together to offer support and hope to female cancer patients,” Lena explains.
Lena is honoured to be appointed as the President of Pink Unity recently, and she is especially humbled by the trust placed in her by her Pink Unity members.
“Pink Unity offers irreplaceable support and assistance to female cancer patients,” Lena explains. “We are all cancer survivors, and this is important. Many cancer patients are surrounded by people who offer all kinds of advice, but we are different because we have been in their shoes. We know what they are going through. Therefore, the advice and support we give come from our hearts.”
Lena adds, “A cancer patient who feels that all is lost and there is no hope can take one look at us and know that there is hope. We all had cancer, and now, we are living content and fulfilling lives. So, there is always hope.”
The sisterhood is affiliated with the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM) and its headquarters is in the same premise as that of NCSM. Upon walking into the Pink Unity headquarters on Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz, Kuala Lumpur, one will see women of all races and ages chatting, relaxing and having fun together. “We are a truly 1Malaysia family,” Lena says proudly.
Pink Unity offers fun classes on make-up, cooking and more. Other activities include karaoke nights, brisk walk get-togethers and other enjoyable opportunities for Pink Unity members to come together.
It is not just about fun with Pink Unity, of course. “People who have, or had, cancer have many worries,” explains Lena. “They worry about the cancer coming back, for example. And then there are those who find out that their treatment no longer works, and it is just a matter of time.”
Pink Unity offers a qualified counsellor who provides a listening ear and comfort to those who are going through tough times. Furthermore, there are regular sharing sessions, during which members can share their joys as well as fears.
In addition to its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Pink Unity also has sister groups in Melaka, Penang, Ipoh and Johor Bharu.
“Pink Unity has a motto: by survivors, for survivors,” Lena concludes. “If you are a cancer patient who needs to reach out to kindred souls, call us or give us a visit (daily, from 10am to 1pm). We also do home visits upon request.”
For more information on Pink Unity, visit their Facebook (search for “Pink Unity”) or www.cancer.org.my. Please note that Pink Unity is open only to women; you can check with NCSM for other appropriate support groups if you are a male cancer patient.
Pink Unity and NCSM also accept donations to fund their non-profit educational and support activities. Visit www.cancer.org.my for more details.