She put on heavy make-up to hide the color of her skin, a wig to hide her balding head, and baggy clothes to hide her changing body. Despite these efforts, many people asked her the same questions: “Are you tired? Are you sick?”
For two full months, Maryam concealed her illness from everybody. “I was both scared and angry,” she says. “I felt that being a woman meant having a beautiful and perfect body, and I was no longer as I was before. My hair was falling away little by little, my nails and my skin were changing color, and the mark of a wound lingered on my body. I wanted to hide these not-so-small changes from everybody. I either stayed away from public gatherings or, if had to go to public places, I spent hours in front of the mirror putting on make-up.”
But now, Maryam has decided to sit in front of a camera without shame or fear and talk about her condition and her feelings. She uploads the videos to Maryam Campaign Facebook page and asks people for help.
“I felt that it was not fair for a person to have to suffer this pain alone and to and hide it,” Maryam tells IranWire. “Covering up the sickness pushed me to surrender further, and made the word ‘cancer’ more horrifying to me.”
Maryam is 31. She found out that she had breast cancer only a few months ago.
Maryam and her husband immigrated to the US three years ago. A few months after arriving in America she found a job. A few months after that, she started college. She promised herself that she would get her degree in three or four years so that she could get a job in her chosen profession, but when she found a tumor in her breast, all her plans fell apart. “When at first I discovered the tumor I did a little research about breast cancer,” she says, “I found out that generally, it's people over 40 who develop this type of cancer. I also found out that genetics plays a role, and we don’t have anybody in our family who has suffered from it.”
At first, Maryam decided that the lump was just fatty tissue that would disappear with time. But when it grew, she consulted a doctor.
A Bolt of Lightning from the Blue Sky
Dr. Kavian Milani was the physician who examined Maryam, and sent her for specialized tests. “Maryam has just turned 31 and breast cancer in women usually starts after they turn 40,” he tells IranWire. “For women in Maryam’s age group, this seldom happens, and is like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky.”
Maryam never imagined that the results from the sonogram would turn her life upside down. “When the nurse took the image she asked me to stay on the bed and called the doctor,” she says. “The doctor and the lab director came in, and the doctor said that he wanted to redo the sonogram.”
After repeating the sonogram the doctor told her, “the lump I see is not an ordinary one. It has extended to your armpit and seems to be cancerous.”
Before he finished talking Maryam’s world began to spin. “I was crying and shaking,” she says. “I had gone there by myself because I did not think that it would turn out to be important. I couldn’t move and I felt that it was all over for me. I had so many unfulfilled wishes. There were so many things that I had not done, so many books that I had not read, so many kinds of food that I had not tried, so many places that I had not seen. At that moment, I felt that my world had ended. I was consumed by fear, so much so that they called a Persian-speaking nurse to calm me down. Then they called Dr. Milani’s office and told him about it.”
Then Maryam went to Milani’s clinic. A few years ago, Milani had founded the Center for Health and Human Rights in Fairfax, Virginia, with the goal of making health care accessible to vulnerable populations. Dr. Milani told Maryam that a tissue sample must be tested to reach a firm diagnosis, and ordered an emergency test.
To Maryam, it seemed like a lifetime before the test results came back. “I was feeling bad but I thought the result would be negative,” she says. “I don’t know, but I thought I knew my body. I had always heard that people who develop cancer say that they felt it beforehand, but I did not feel that I had cancer.”
The test result came back positive, and Maryam had to prepare for emergency surgery. “In a few short days everything fell apart,” Maryam says. “I lost my new job, and I worried about making a living. Add to that the medical expenses, and the fact I did not have health insurance.”
“Because of Maryam’s situation, the Center for Health and Human Rights helped a person to pay a debt caused by her illness for the first time,” Milani says. “She had neither emotional nor financial support. We thought that the Iranian community should help her.”
Maryam started chemotherapy four weeks after surgery. “In the beginning, I could not stop crying,” she tells IranWire. “Chemotherapy and illness had turned my life upside down. Chemotherapy and the costs of treatment and had brought me to my knees. Chemotherapy weakens the body so much that any small illness becomes a big problem. I had to spend one week in the hospital for a common cold, another week for a urinary infection, and so on.”
The loss of her job, along with everyday expenses, put added pressure on Maryam her husband. “Within a few weeks the couple was in debt for $30,000,” Milani says.
Nobody should go through this Experience
Maryam decided to tell people about her illness. “When I meet somebody I tell them not to procrastinate if they find anything suspicious on their bodies,” she says. “Now I want to tell bigger groups about my experience and inform people about this sickness. Believe me when I say that chemotherapy makes me feel so horrible that I do not want anybody else to experience it. After chemotherapy, when I feel bad, I think about children with cancer and wish that someday they will find another way to fight cancer.
Now Maryam has accepted her illness and has asked for help. She has reached many people through her Maryam Campaign page, which she has launched with the support of the Center for Health and Human Rights. And many people have stepped forward to help.
“Within three weeks we received about $10,000 in contributions,” Milani reports. “We want to help Maryam to relieve her mind from worries about expenses so that she can cope with her illness better.”
The Maryam Campaign has proved a learning experience for Maryam herself. “This sickness and this campaign have changed my worldview,” she says. “Like many other people I believed that we Iranians do not support each other. But this campaign showed that we truly do support each other. Many Iranians who know that I have chemotherapy on Tuesdays bring me food. Some phone to say that if I cannot perform household chores they can come and help. Some call to ask how I am doing or go shopping for me. As someone who has come down with this disease far from home, these things warm my heart.”
Milani has many plans to better familiarize Iranians with cancer struggles. According to him, “Maryam is a very good spokesperson and talks eloquently about breast cancer with men and women who should know more about it.”
In Iran, Maryam studied law. Like a good lawyer, she talks clearly and logically. And cancer has taught her other things as well. “In Iran I was in love with literature but my father wanted me to study law,” she says. “I was close to my father and I always wanted his approval, so I studied law. In the US, before my illness, I could not decide whether I should continue with law or pursue other fields of study. When I came face to face with death, I learned that I must not choose something that I do not want. I promised myself to study English literature, and I hope that someday I will become a good writer.”
Maybe one day Maryam will write a bestseller about her fight with cancer.