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‘I don't want sympathy'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

When my aunt had cancer in the 1990s, it was a taboo in Egypt to say you had cancer, and so the disease was kept secret among close family members.
I remember many times my mother visiting her in tears and how the disease came to eclipse all our lives, affecting the whole family and not just my aunt. I remember how all the family did their best, but it was a time of fear and discomfort for all.
Twenty years later, people are treating cancer with much greater awareness. With surging rates of cancer in Egypt and worldwide, the disease has become a regular visitor in almost every household.
“When I found out I had cancer, I was finally relieved,” said Menna Medhat, a cancer patient who was in the fourth stage of lymphoma when diagnosed. “I was happy in a way because cancer was part of my mum who had died of the same disease 10 years ago. I realised that God had given me this to remind me that I am my mother's daughter,” said Medhat, a student at the College of Language and Communication in Alexandria.
Medhat, only 20 years old, has been fighting cancer for a year, struggling with chemotherapy, an impaired immune system, general weakness and hair loss. Nonetheless, the strength she showed has been incomparable, and her story is an inspiration and a way of showing that one can survive cancer.
Medhat is a young woman whose smile never leaves her, and even if it did, she would force herself to smile to be able to combat the disease. Despite the harsh treatment, she has not stopped investing in her life. “I remember when I received my first chemotherapy session, the next day I went to the gym, but instead of practising for two hours, I only did 10 minutes,” Medhat added.
“Menna has continued studying, and when she has had extra energy she will go to the gym or hang out with us,” her friends told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I remember once when we were filming in the gardens of the Montaza Palace, she did not leave us. We spent the whole day shooting, which was very tiring, but Menna never showed any weakness or readiness to go despite being tired,” said Nouran, a friend and colleague.
Nouran, Shaza and Merna are members of Menna's support group. Despite their young age, they have stood by, courageously fighting cancer with their friend.
“Menna has given us strength we never knew we had. We have learned so much about life and the values of love, faith and friendship in such a short period of time,” they told the Weekly.
“After this experience, I have learned to be closer to God and understood what is really important in life,” Merna added.
Shaza, who used to be impulsive, said that “I have become more patient, as well as a more practical human being who is considerate enough to care for others.”
“Going through a year of chemotherapy with a smile has given me the strength to know I can undergo anything with grace and belief,” Medhat added.
In a country where privacy is scarce, many patients struggle when dealing with the public aspects of cancer.
Medhat had no problem in disclosing to her colleagues that she had cancer, however. “People treat me differently. Sometimes they totally ignore you, and sometimes they become suddenly too close and want to intervene in your private life,” she said, adding that many people do not know how to treat people fighting cancer.
“I do not need sympathy. I do not want you to say your prayers in front of me. I just need you to treat me like you used to,” Medhat said.
It is sad that some people do not know how to treat cancer patients, especially if the latter are doing their best to continue with their lives despite the pain or fatigue they might be feeling.
“There are four stages in the psychological effects of any disease on patients: rejection, denial, depression and acceptance. The quicker you get through the first three stages, the more you are likely to be healed,” Maged Morris, a psychiatrist, said in an interview with the Weekly.
Morris gave tips on how people could best treat cancer patients. Tell the patient the whole truth without fear and exaggeration and at the right time, he said. Be hopeful and optimistic because patients read facial expressions. Encourage them to practise their daily lives without stopping their work or errands. Cancer patients who undergo treatment while still going to work are better patients than ones staying at home, he said.
If you see a patient getting depressed, encourage him to see a psychiatrist. Sleeping properly and a healthy diet are vital for any patient to help boost their immune system. Do not be afraid and do not get worried. Every family must have a decision-maker for a course of treatment. This will help the patent recover well. Don't over-react and do not show too much sympathy.
Morris also said that people should not interfere in private matters, especially if they are simply acquaintances, colleagues, or co-workers. Be aware of people's privacy. Don't ask about chemotherapy sessions or other aspects of treatment.
In fact, the more people know about the disease, the less frightened they are likely to be. Science is progressing. Twenty years ago, a cancer patient could very well die, but today there are many cancer survivors.
Cancer is not the most-frightening disease to be diagnosed with, and there are others that are worse. Cancer patients should always be encouraged to experience the natural world. Like all of us, they need to understand that our lives are seasonal and that one has to pass through the sunlight as well as the sunset in order to experience the day.

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