Nikhar was 24 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2020. It was the month of Ramadan; a time of reflection, gratitude and compassion which Nikhar has observed her whole life. However, this year was different for Nikhar as she faced a breast cancer diagnosis whilst living away from her family.
I was 24 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer after finding a lump completely by chance. I was laying in bed one night (it was about 4am) and I happened to brush my arm across my breast and felt something hard. At first I thought it was my nipple, but when I checked I couldn’t see anything. It was then that I decided to check and I found a lump. There’s no history of breast cancer in my family, and although I knew that lumps and breast changes should be checked, I didn’t know that it could affect young people like me.
At the time, I was living in London studying for my Law degree. It was during the Covid lockdown and I was living away from my family who were back home in Pakistan. I hadn’t yet registered with a GP in the UK, assuming it would be difficult to do during the pandemic. Naturally I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to get an appointment or escalate what I’d found; by 9am the next day I contacted my university nurse. Thankfully she managed to find me a doctor’s appointment the same day!
I spoke with the GP over a video call from my bedroom; I showed them my lump and described what I could see and feel. It wasn’t the easiest way of having a breast check but there was enough evidence for the doctor to refer me to a breast specialist. The whole process was very quick and soon I was being dropped off at the hospital by my friend – due to Covid regulations, I had to go into the appointment alone and then had the scary wait to find out if anything was wrong.
I was observing Ramadan at the time I found the lump. The month of Ramadan holds a special significance for me and my family. Ramadan is a time of reflection, gratitude, and compassion; it’s a time when we come together as a community and support one another, regardless of our differences.
Next thing I know, I was being told I had breast cancer whilst sitting in my bedroom… in complete lockdown, without my parents. It was so hard to accept what was happening to me. I felt scared, alone and guilty about my diagnosis.
Understanding that I’d need some support, I told my friend and flatmates however it took me a long time to tell my parents. I just kept thinking about how Ramadan is a time of celebration and yet I had been told the worst news. I waited to tell my family because I wanted them to celebrate Eid, and I knew that they wouldn’t be able to travel due to the lockdown. Waiting to tell them was difficult, but I knew that the spirit of Ramadan would give me the strength to face this challenge.
Ramadan taught me to have patience, to be grateful for the blessings in my life, and to have faith that everything happens for a reason. So to me, Ramadan is not just a month of fasting, but a time of hope, love, and resilience. It’s a time when we come together to overcome our challenges and emerge stronger than ever before.
I realise now how lucky I was that I found the lump early, which meant that I had more options for treatment. I underwent a mastectomy with an implant reconstruction to remove the cancer and luckily it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, which meant I didn’t need chemotherapy. I did however, require some radiotherapy which I did for about a month after my surgery. This was particularly tough both physically and mentally; with the added element of being away from my family, I found it difficult to remain positive.
The impact was massive. My whole life changed, including my personality.
My recovery wasn’t going well and my body rejected the implant, so I had to undergo two further operations to reconstruct my breast with fat tissue and skin from my thighs. I was mentally drained and physically exhausted from all the treatment, but I knew it’s what I needed to do to get better. With the support of my family and friends, I was able to push through the obstacles that cancer has thrown at me.
So where am I now? I will be on hormone treatment for at least 10 years and that in itself comes with challenges (menopausal symptoms to say the least). But I’m here. In fact, once I’d recovered from my reconstruction surgeries, I decided to apply for a job at CoppaFeel! and that was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time!
Nikhar joined CoppaFeel! as a Fundraising Assistant, which involved engaging with our amazing fundraisers and donors as well as assisting and representing the charity at events and with corporate partners. Nikhar used her breast cancer experience to educate, encourage and empower young people to check their chests regularly and seek medical advice if they notice something that’s not normal for them.
We know that stories have the power to change behaviours and save lives. We hope that Nikhar’s experience encourages you to build chest checking into your routine so you can get to know what’s normal for you.