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27 October 2019

In her own words: I’m far more than a breast cancer statistic

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What made Dr. Borbala Mifsud, Assistant Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Health and Life Sciences, say this? She explains.

I was sitting at the dining table arranging return gifts for my son’s birthday, when it struck me: I was a statistic. As a researcher in molecular biology and genetics, how many times had I tried to find prognostic features in cancer cells or calculated survival curves? How many times had I mechanically continued investigations without giving a thought to the patients from whom these cells were drawn?

Today, I too was a statistic – and this time, it was about my own survival.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud

That October morning, as I packed little treat bags for my son to hand out to his friends, I tried to tell myself that it was normal to have these thoughts. That it was okay to be terrified. After all, not every mother has to undergo her first session of chemotherapy on her son’s third birthday.

Discovering Doha

In the summer of 2018, my husband and I decided to move to Doha from London. UK’s fickle weather made us look forward to sunny skies. The transition was smooth. My husband joined Sidra Medicine [a member of Qatar Foundation] as a pathologist who conducts research into pediatric kidney cancer. I started work at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s (HBKU) newly-launched College of Health and Life Sciences. And my son quickly settled down in a local kindergarten.

You always assume the worst when it’s a problem that concerns your own body. That’s exactly how I felt when I discovered a lump in my right breast, just three months after our arrival in Qatar. I mentioned this to my husband. We made an appointment to see a doctor at a private hospital. He suggested a scan, but the wait list in the same hospital, for the procedure, was too long. I didn’t want to wait. We had the scan done privately, in another hospital.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud, Assistant Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Health and Life Sciences.

As I went in for my scan, I couldn’t help thinking that there were women all over the world who had to wait months before being able to get an appointment for a scan, to know if they will live or die. I was lucky to be in Qatar.

My scan results were suspicious enough to warrant a biopsy in Hamad General Hospital.

A diagnosis. And then one more…..

No matter how tranquil a personality you have, the build up to the first official diagnosis can be sheer agony. Hearing the doctor confirm that I had breast cancer sucked the air out of me. My initial thoughts were much the same as any woman who would be in my position: “This can’t be happening to me”, “How long do I have to live?”, and “What’s going to happen to my son and husband?”.

But, as a molecular biologist who had researched cancer, I knew the most likely outcome for every stage of the disease. For the first time in my life, I felt my knowledge helped – and hurt.

I was told that my malignancy was in stage 1, a stage when chances for a complete cure were close to 100 percent. I was relieved. When my surgeon outlined a treatment protocol for me, I was almost pleased. The first step would be a surgery to remove the lump.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud enjoying a quiet moment with her son.

It’s difficult to explain the feeling of horror that I experienced when I recovered from anesthesia to learn that it was worse than the initial diagnosis; that the malignancy had spread to my lymph nodes. This shook my confidence in the healthcare system – but only temporarily. My surgeon had to revise my treatment protocol. Now, I would have chemotherapy, another surgery for a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and then radiotherapy.

It’s strange how, even in those moments, the researcher in me kicked in. I felt that if I could view the next few months as a checklist of tasks that I had to complete, I could make it. I would tick off surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation as they finished. And then it would be done. That’s the mental frame of mind I was in when I started the long treatment process.

You draw strength from the ordinary and start using it as a shield to blot out what you’re not in control of. My weapon was my work.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud

My weapon was my work

I guess it’s human nature to emotionally push yourself into a zone where you feel you are contributing to something, when in reality you’re caught in an avalanche of processes, forms, medications, surgeries, and pain. You draw strength from the ordinary and start using it as a shield to blot out what you’re not in control of. My weapon was my work.

While my treatment was going on, I was grateful for my role as a faculty at HBKU. I relished the work I was doing with my two other colleagues to help set up the new College of Health and Life Sciences. Yes, there were days when I was almost knocked out due to the side-effects of the chemotherapy. But I would still drag myself to work, eager to see my students.

Every single person in my university was supportive. They could have easily created a fuss, as I had joined as a new faculty just a month before my diagnosis. They didn’t. They scheduled my classes so that I could attend chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions in between. My work kept me going.

Looking back, I feel I reached Qatar in the nick of time. The healthcare system here, and my university, helped me complete the entire treatment cycle. From the point of view of outcome and survival, I was lucky that it took only three weeks from finding the lump to my first surgery. Compared to waiting time and protocols in other countries, this was a luxury.

Breast cancer affects your sexuality, but not in the way you assume it will.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud

Reconstructing relationships

Breast cancer affects your sexuality, but not in the way you assume it will. In my case, I discovered that it was not only the mastectomy that I had to adjust to. The medications that were given to suppress my natural hormones too, affected my relationships with my spouse and my immediate family. Thankfully, it got better with time.

Plus, I was fortunate to have a loving husband who was also a cancer researcher himself and understood exactly what I was going through. I don’t think I would have been able to pull through the experience but for his gentleness and compassion.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud with her family.

And there was my little boy. He was too young to fully understand what was happening to his mother. Of course, we tried our best to explain what was going on – and there were moments when his maturity surprised us.

Post-mastectomy, my physiotherapist had told me not to lift my son for a few weeks. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to ignore medical advice, but sometimes you just have to listen to your heart. As soon as I regained my strength, I would pick him up - often. When I held him to my chest, I could feel the implant press against me. As he breathed in and out, I remember wondering ‘Who is comforting whom?’ – because small as he was, I drew as much consolation from holding him as much as he did being held by me.

My biggest achievement yet

Cancer made me redefine the word ‘achiever’. Thirteen years ago, I graduated with a Master’s in microbiology from Hungary. I received a Ph.D from Vienna University in 2010, and did postdoctoral and independent work in Cambridge and London.

Allow yourself to experience failure, so that you will learn to look at those around you as more than graded performers.

Dr. Borbala Mifsud

Yet here I was in 2019, unable to even complete the proposal for a research grant. And, for the first time in my student life and career, I felt that I didn’t have to do that to be a success. I didn’t have to depend on my qualifications to define who I was. I saw myself as more than a list of academic degrees.

This is an insight I want to share with my students at HBKU. ‘You are more than a student. Don’t define yourself by your grades alone. Allow yourself to experience failure, so that you will learn to look at those around you as more than graded performers’.

My biggest achievement yet  – the realization that my short hair, my implant, and my scar have only strengthened my different roles as a mother, wife, daughter, and professional.

Over the next few months and years, I will undergo regular tests to ensure that I am still cancer-free. I’ll be facing these examinations with what I consider to be my biggest achievement yet – the realization that my short hair, my implant, and my scar have only strengthened my different roles as a mother, wife, daughter, and professional. That I am a complete woman. And that I’m certainly far more than a breast cancer statistic.

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