Family and faith helped Qatari chef Aisha Al Tamimi through the toughest challenge of her life. And she found positives in her illness. Now she wants to help others cope as well.
Five years ago, Aisha Al Tamimi was busy packing luggage, preparing for a trip abroad the next day, when her niece - a doctor – knocked on the door and entered with a thousand words in her eyes, a thousand questions written on her face, and an envelope in her hands containing medical papers that would begin a story of pain, but ultimately also hope.
“Aunty, please visit the doctor as soon as you arrive at your destination,” Aisha’s niece said. “Promise me you will.”
“No problem, I will. Now can you help me lift this bag?” was the response from the Qatari woman who is considered the best chef in Qatar, and who was about to start a journey of challenges.
That day, Aisha was unaware that the reason she was being urged to see a doctor was because of the result of a mammogram showing that she had breast cancer. She was confident that any fears and suspicions she might have had were unfounded, and that she would have an enjoyable trip with her family – never imagining for a moment the difficult times that lay ahead.
Aisha describes the moment she received the news that she had breast cancer as “the most painful moment in her life”, as a nurse told her that while her right breast was fine, the left one had a “small cancer”.
“Small cancer? What a cruel word,” she says. “I thought ‘where did it come from? And why me? What will happen? Will my hair fall out? Will my body get tired and weak? And how will everyone see me suffer while I used to give others the strength and the courage to face any challenge?’”
The prospect of chemotherapy was Aisha’s biggest fear, and as she came to terms with the shock of the news, her doctor asked her whether she would prefer a mastectomy or tumor resection. She had no answer apart from a torrent of tears that she says “did not stop for two months”.
However, her doctor also told her that, thanks to early detection, the cancer mass was still small and had not yet reached the lymph nodes, which meant she did not need chemotherapy, but radiotherapy to eliminate the cancer cells, which would begin as soon as possible.
Aisha's holiday baggage was taken to the hospital; a relaxing break had become a journey of therapy which started with an operation, before she returned to Doha and immediately began sessions at the radiotherapy department at Al Amal Hospital, part of Hamad Medical Corporation, six days a week. In all, she underwent 33 sessions.
“When they told me that I had a session at Eid, I felt sad and asked to postpone the appointment, to not take the family gathering in our house from me, after this disease had already stolen a lot of my beautiful days,” she says.
A woman who has always radiated positive energy today looks back at that time and describes her feelings then as “hopeless”. During treatment, she says, she wanted nothing but to sit in tears on her bed and wondering “Why me?”
She did not sleep at night, did not see the sunlight, and stopped practicing her greatest passion in life: cooking. She remembers that even the uplifting smell of the fresh bread she used to make no longer had the ability to change her mood, and she could no longer remember the taste of the Qatari dessert she enjoyed preparing. Everything, she says, had changed.
Power of faith
What made the biggest difference to Aisha, a mother and grandmother, at that stage was the support of her family.
“Everyone reminded me of previous situations, where I taught them how to fight despair with hope, sadness with optimism, and sickness with patience,” she says. Among them was my daughter, who told me ‘You are my friend, my strength in life, so how we can move forward if those who give us strength become weak?’.
“From there, I began to regain myself, drawing strength from my children, my relatives, and all my friends – even my two young grandchildren who were running to jump into my arms, They gave me the strength to continue the exhausting treatment journey to the end”.
My faith helped me to heal, as if the cancer was a message to make me more convinced of what had been written for me in this life.
Aisha also emphasizes the importance of reading the Holy Qur’an at this low ebb in her life.
“My faith helped me to heal, as if the cancer was a message to make me more convinced of what had been written for me in this life,” she explains.
Gradually, Aisha began to recover. Her breast cancer treatment was successful, and visits to the doctor became fewer. She was dogged by the illusion that a tumor was still there, only for her doctor to reassure her “Don’t worry. You are fine.”
Sharing the experience
Aisha decided to talk about her experience and share her story with others in the hope it will help them cope with breast cancer. She began to participate in awareness campaigns in medical centers in Qatar, and speak about how early detection saved her life. She also has built her own social network to raise awareness about breast cancer.
And with her recovery, the Qatari chef regained her passion for the culinary world, publishing a new book about Qatari food, participating in many cooking events abroad, and supporting her son to establishing a cooking academy that was supported by Qatar Foundation.
Love and giving
In March this year, Aisha was standing at the live cooking theater at Education City's Oxygen Park, during the Qatar International Food Festival 2019, preparing Qatari meals and creating bread, while telling everyone that the smell of that bread is “similar to the smell of life – both are made of the same ingredients: love, passion, and giving”.
Breast cancer has taught me to appreciate myself, and to respect my personal needs, it taught me to love myself, a lesson I try to convey to other women.
“After every distressing time, we are born again and become stronger and more committed to life,” says Aisha. “Breast cancer has taught me to appreciate myself, and to respect my personal needs, it taught me to love myself, a lesson I try to convey to other women.
‘My experience actually made me feel younger, and stronger. It taught me that life is very precious, and age is only a number that has no value – not when compared to the quantity of joy there is in this life”.