Who was Tina Chagoury before Breast Cancer?
Wife and mom of 2 in Dubai since 2005. I had left my full-time job of 15 years around 1 year before my diagnosis, so I was pretty happy, fulfilled and self-employed. I had my clinical practice as well as my weekly TV segments with MBC. I was very active: I did 5-6 hours of yoga and HIIT workouts every week. I had always been self-aware, always knew how to read my body and understand my aches. I was adamant on all my Ob/gyn follow ups, yearly screening tests and I had always done breast self-exams.
In May 2019 I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer. We were still mourning him when I got my diagnosis in July 2019.
How and when did you discover your cancer? How old were you?
I was 39, during summer holidays in Lebanon. I was getting ready to go out for dinner with my husband and some friends and as I was putting my bra on I felt a very clear, firm lump on my right breast. As I mentioned I always did self-checks (I didn’t do regular mammograms yet as I had no direct family history of breast cancer and I wasn’t 40 yet) and I had never felt this lump before. Knowing my breasts so well, I knew then and there it’s not good news. I immediately called my friend ObGyn (it was around 8pm and no clinics were open), he checked it and asked me to have an ultrasound done although it didn’t feel alarming to him (or in fact to any of the doctors who checked it at a later stage)… talk about sneaky cancer.
What did you do or how did you feel when you received your diagnosis? Tell us about the thoughts that went on in your head?
During the ultrasound the technician was very quiet so I knew how things will unfold (or at least I thought I knew😊). Unfortunately I don’t have a very pleasant memory of how the initial news was broken to me (I don’t think anyone does, but some ways have more empathy than others); it was on the ultrasound bed as I was putting my bra back that he told me “you will need a biopsy…let’s schedule one tomorrow” but the look on his face said it all. Anyways, mammogram, then biopsy, then a PET scan and a dozen blood tests and finally it was confirmed. Breast Cancer.
I got the biopsy results on the hospital app, on my own: Stage 2, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. It wasn’t pretty, let’s put it this way. First thought was: this is all a nightmare and I will wake up. Then it was “it’s going to be alright, I’ll have a double mastectomy, have a treatment and be done”. But I was certainly worried because I had no idea what all the words meant, how bad it was, how curable, I had a million question in my head and I had to stay collected for my mom, my husband and my kids. It was a rough 48 hours until I met with the oncologist.
Everyone’s journey with cancer is different. Hearing other people’s experience helps us get from denial to acceptance. Walk us through your experience of these stages.
I didn’t really get the time for denial😊 2 days after my diagnosis I had to start a dose dense neo-adjuvant chemotherapy (that is chemo before surgery in an attempt to chemically suppress/kill the tumor which worked as expected).
During the first round of chemo (the first 8 weeks) I was physically drained but never angry or depressed more like tired mentally and physically and grateful that I got a quick diagnosis and a good prognosis.
We had to temporarily relocate to Lebanon for my treatment, get the kids in a new school and my husband whose work is based in Africa, had to work also from Lebanon: so the changes, the hassle and wanting to make sure the kids are ok really kept my mind off negative thoughts. I took it like a challenge, just like another life challenge and ‘let’s get it done and over with’.
And here let me share something that really uplifted me: few weeks into my treatment my friend gives me the contact of her friend who also lived in the UAE and is a 10-year breast cancer survivor; I called her and I spoke to her and I asked her many questions and the fact that she is a 10-year survivor gave me an immense relief and add to it the doctor’s. reassurance that I have an 85% chance to cure if all goes as planned. These were the recurrent thoughts in my head every day. And I prayed a lot, a lot.
What helped you reach the acceptance phase?
My faith in God and St. Charbel and my mom’s prayers; my strong belief that God has a greater plan and also, the anticipation of the end of treatment, of us going back home to Dubai, the excitement of the kids every time we mention going back to school and life in Dubai; basically the idea of being back to normal kept me going and gave a sense of peace and acceptance.
Talk to us about your support system throughout your journey.
My husband was the first person I told and as I mentioned left everything to stay with us, he was with me most session and every doctor appointment. He really went beyond himself for me and the kids. My mom of course with the little things such as preparing my favorite dishes, being there for the kids, seeing her everyday was a blessing, my parents and sister-in-law who we stayed with were incredible. My brother was by my side supporting both my husband and I during the initial phase with the never-ending tests, screenings and doctor appointments. My sister, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends they all played a very positive role in my well-being, but it was by far my 2 kids that gave me the most strength and resilience. Letting them down was not an option.
You know the support system is incredibly important but keeping some sort of privacy goes a long way too. I appreciated every little help I got but I also craved being back in control; so many times I would choose to go to chemo sessions on my own, read my book or work a bit or watch a movie on my laptop. I used to enjoy those moments of being alone, they helped me accept and adapt to a new me.
Did you incorporate any lifestyle changes during your treatment?
None, whatsoever. Chemotherapy drained me till the last drop. Adriamycin was so harsh It would knock me down 8 days after every session (all I would do is eat whatever I could tolerate, take my meds and sleep, I couldn’t even tolerate water let alone any juice, supplement or the idea of a special diet).
After the AC, during Taxol, the side effects were so much better I could start eating healthier, I could start working out like once or twice a week whenever I had the energy and had couple of celery juices and other antioxidant mixes, but I wouldn’t call this change in lifestyle, I was already a pretty healthy person before.
I tried to practice yoga whenever I could, it was challenging as I had put on 7 kg during the AC cycles and had lost a lot of muscles in the process.
Today however I have finally managed to do some research especially in terms of lifestyle and nutrition and I have added some supplements, switched to a flexitarian plant-based diet, started yoga again and a 30-min cardio daily.
Did you face any misdiagnosis challenges?
Not really misdiagnosis more like a suggested treatment protocol that I didn’t appreciate which made me switch doctors and stick with the AUBMC team. I am so grateful to have been well-surrounded. So grateful to have had good specialists and to have been in such good hands throughout. Post-surgery, after I was told that I had a total pathological response (i.e a complete resolution of the tumor form the breast and lymph nodes) I moved back to Dubai and had my radiotherapy at the American hospital and again, I was very pleased with the team.
Who was Tina Chagoury during Breast Cancer?
I was a very determined mom who was ready to take it all just to be back for her kids. I tried my best to get up every morning to school with them (although I would collapse back in bed the moment they’re out) but I tried to force myself to be around them for lunch, homework and very few outings. I even managed to refurbish and move into the house that we had bought 10 years ago and never got the time to finalize; half way through chemo we moved in and this project gave me an amazing sense of achievement in the middle of what was mostly ‘helplessness’.
Hair loss, perhaps the most dreaded subject. How did you cope with this change?
It’s mostly the eyebrows loss that affected me the most, because I looked 10 times worse than how I felt and this is when I started seeing myself as a cancer patient for the first time. The hair loss was too fast to realize; right after my second session it started falling in big lumps and the head was aching so much I decided to shave it myself one evening before I showered; I had my 10 year old daughter help me a bit, we had a good laugh, she said I looked funky😊 and that was about it.
What did Cancer change in your life?
I wish I could say it changed everything or it made me a better person but to be honest it didn’t change much because I liked the person I was, I was in a good place and I am still this person: it did however adjust my perspective and my view on what really matters in my life: I am grateful to have been given a second chance, I am amazed by what my body could endure and how resilient we can be and it made me respect and appreciate my body even more.
What was the worst advice or the worst thing said to you (intentionally or unintentionally)?
Buy a wig😊 akhhh I couldn’t wear it once, well I did literally one time and couldn’t wait to be back in the car to take it off. So I used mostly bandanas (their cotton and their lightness was the best), when it was too cold I would add a beanie but that’s it. The wig is still untouched. I felt fake wearing it; I mean what’s the point? Those who matter don’t care and those who care don’t really matter right😊 Add to it that I bought it when I still had my hair which means once I lost the hair, it wasn’t a perfect fit anymore. But I respect the woman who decides to wear it every day during the treatment because it makes her feel whole and beautiful I completely understand.
What were the best or most comforting words said to you?
My cousin had breast cancer 9 years ago and she was a big support for me especially through chemotherapy; she would always repeat: all what you are feeling is normal and will be over sooner than you think.
What challenges did you face in your community/society?
The look on people’s face when they see a woman with a bandana and no or thinly lined eyebrows is something else! If there is one thing a cancer fighter craves, it's normality! So please for God’s sake don’t stare, don’t throw a sad face, don’t react; simply act normal. You know many times I would be at a supermarket and maybe for a second forget what I was going through as I roam through the aisles enjoying doing something ‘normal’ until I bump into a stranger staring at my head and it throws me right back into reality😊
Who is Tina Chagoury today?
I am still a very happy, sociable and active woman, dietitian, wife and mom but I am much more grounded, I take things slower, I set my priorities and I don’t waste my time on things that don’t really matter.
Physically, as I was Estrogen receptor positive, I am on menopause-inducing meds and they’re a bit harsh so I have to deal with some joint aches and pains and add to it the menopause symptoms and the body changes. All this is challenging to me as a woman but even more to me as a dietitian who has been dealing with menopausal women for the past 15 years and being in it now is definitely an eye opener and I can’t tell you enough how motivated I am to find the best way to tackle hormonal problems in my practice now to help women going through natural or medically induced menopause.
An experience like this makes us rethink our goals and reshuffle our priorities. How did these change after Cancer?
You know it’s a long process, I am still adjusting to the life after, I admit I had been trying to do some things the same way as before but I realize more and more that I shouldn’t: it’s important to accept that we have changed and to stretch our mind and adapt to a new version of ourselves and not keep pushing ourselves to go back to who were before; be it physically, mentally or emotionally because it can get frustrating and puts us down while all in the contrary we have to be celebrating life just the way it is.
Did you used to do self-checks? Do you do them now?
What would you tell someone who is newly diagnosed?
This is a bump, a small bump in your road and you will get through it even if some days you don’t feel like talking or eating or seeing anyone, even if some days the pain, the nausea, the sleepless nights are unbearable: know that all of this will be over soon and you will once again feel back and feel great in your skin. And I am here, reachable, if I can be of any help, please reach out.
OH… one more thing: if you want to know more about your cancer (because I sensed a small undermining of women’s knowledge when it comes to expanding the diseases, the treatment, the options…) I mean oncologists are amazing human beings for doing what they do, but I would spend days researching details just to have a better idea of the medical terms and the stats behind it, now I know some women might not know where or how to look: please ask your doctor, don’t be shy, make a list of questions and ask everything no matter how silly you think it is: BUT DON’T GOOGLE RANDOM WEBSITES, it will spiral you down.
What piece of advice would you give young girls and women in our community/society?
Self-check, know your normal, don’t be shy to ask (your mom, your sister, your aunt, your grandma, your doctor) if you feel anything unusual. Know your body from head to toe and understand how it functions and why young breasts are dense and why mammograms start at 40 and why you are getting your period and when is your bleeding normal and when is it unusual, know your body because you are the only one living in it and you will be the 1st one to notice anything abnormal and save your life.