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When cancer diagnosis became a ‘blessing’ for Dubai-based Lama Riachi

Kelly Clarke - Reporter
Filed on June 28, 2015
When cancer diagnosis became a ‘blessing’ for Dubai-based Lama Riachi

For 36-year-old Dubai-based Lama Riachi, a cancer diagnosis in October 2013 marked the moment her biggest fear came to life.

Giving something back ... Lama riachi. — Photo by Leslie Pableo

Dubai — “I don’t remember much about being told of the news. I remember the sound of wailing. I scared myself with my reaction. I think I started shouting ‘no, no, no’.”

For 36-year-old Dubai-based Lama Riachi, a cancer diagnosis in October 2013 marked the moment her biggest fear came to life.

Speaking candidly to Khaleej Times, she says it was also the best thing that ever happened to her.

“It sounds weird, but it’s true. It made me look at life differently and now I’m helping others win their fight against cancer.”

Now in remission from ovarian cancer for more than a year, it was an article in a local paper which led Riachi to fellow cancer survivor, Josefina Abaya, and subsequently the setting up of locally-based cancer support group, Blessed.

Riachi shares her personal battle with the disease as well as her desire to help others who are going through the same.

Riachi’s whirlwind cancer battle saw her face a shocking diagnosis, two surgeries and chemotherapy all within a one month period.

“After having a routine check-up here, the doctor discovered I had cysts on my ovaries. Initially he was quite alarmed because they were bilateral, meaning on both ovaries, but I was advised to wait as they could just go away.”

After consulting her family doctor back home in Beirut, Riachi was advised to undergo surgery to remove the cysts straight away, as it could affect fertility.

“I had only been married eight months at that point. My husband and I both wanted to start a family so I was forced to make a quick decision and go for surgery.”

After travelling back home to Beirut for the non-invasive laparoscopy procedure, Riachi first asked her family doctor if it would be better to undergo further investigation before surgery. But following an ultrasound, the doctor said all was okay and advised her go ahead and remove the cysts.

“During surgery, the doctor was shocked with what he discovered. My sister was in the waiting room at the time and he called her into the theatre, mid-surgery, to explain he was 80 per cent sure the ovaries were cancerous.”

The doctor then asked her sister to give him the consent to remove her ovaries and uterus, while Riachi lay, unaware on the surgery table.

“My sister was so shocked and upset that he was asking her to make this decision. It would mean I wouldn’t be able to have my own children and she was not happy to make that call. So only the cysts were removed.”

Following surgery, nobody informed Riachi of the suspected cancer as both the doctor and her sister were keen to wait and see what the results revealed.

But Riachi says she knew something didn’t feel right at the time.

“My husband flew in from Dubai and suddenly, all my family were coming to Beirut. That made me a little suspicious. That night after surgery the doctor came to my room and said I had given him ‘a bit of trouble’ during surgery and he had sent some samples off to the lab for testing.”

That’s when a sinking feeling hit, she says.

“The doctor was very cold and not very reassuring. He told me to toughen up, but now I look back on it I think he acted like that because he was preparing me for the worst. I think he knew in his heart it was cancer.”

Unbeknownst to Riachi and her family at the time, one of the cysts had also burst during surgery, which subsequently contaminated the surrounding area.

“Basically it was a botched surgery. Had that cyst not burst but the results still showed that the ovaries were diseased, I would have only needed surgery to remove the ovaries and uterus. I would not have needed chemotherapy, too.”

Five days following the first surgery, Riachi’s sister, who works in the medical field, broke the news that it was, in fact, cancer.

“That was one of the blessings that came from my battle. I didn’t have to go through the trauma of getting the news from my doctor. It was my sister who broke it to me.”

Riachi then met with her doctor who explained that it was likely stage one, so it was detected early, but surgery to remove everything, including the ovaries and the uterus, had to be performed as soon as possible.

“That’s when I just thought to myself, ‘how is this happening. I just got married, I want kids, I want a family and now that’s being taken away from me, too’.”

But with the support of her family and her husband, she accepted the news quite quickly and says she went in with the attitude, ‘this is the hand I’ve been dealt’.

“I just thought, ‘if I can’t have my own children, maybe my calling is to adopt’. I’ve worked with orphans in the Middle East so I can give them a loving home.” 

A teary Riachi then went on to say that the hardest part of the whole experience was breaking the news to her mother.

“She has had a hard life. She has been through big surgeries herself, and before I was born she lost my 3-year-old brother in a car accident. All I could think was how can I protect my mum.”

And at first her mother couldn’t grasp the news, but with family support, they all pulled together, she says.

“That’s why I say it is one of the best things that ever happened to me. My family and I pushed everything else to the side and just concentrated on being a family. It was the closest we have ever been. I was so lucky to have that.”

Following invasive abdominal surgery in mid-October 2013, Riachi began the first of a six cycle chemotherapy session on October 30, and says she soon got the hang of it.

“I turned the chemo session into a good time. That made it easier to deal with. We turned the hospital room into a party room with music blaring and arts and crafts sessions.”

Pulling through

Now in remission for just over a year, Riachi says she always wanted to give something back following her fight with cancer and after coming across a newspaper in the trash one day, everything clicked.

“I saw this woman on the front page. She had breast cancer and was looking for financial support to finish treatment.”

The emotional read left her adamant to help this woman and soon after, the Whatsapp-based support group, Blessed, was born.

“I got in touch with the contact person, Maya, who is also Jo’s sister, and that’s how the communication began. I managed to raise the money to get Jo through her treatment. Now we are like a family.”

Primarily formed for sharing healthy tips for healing, the original three-member group has since blossomed into an 80-strong network of cancer patients, survivors and support workers who now share daily tips and messages of support.

For Riachi, the support she received from her family during her fight with cancer truly brought home the importance of love healing all and it is a message which needs to remain strong.

“There is a need for people to have comfort and support and ‘Blessed’ gives people that. With gratitude comes healing.”

kelly@khaleejtimes.com


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