Eight surgeries in five years and losing a job she loved did little to daunt Lillifer Uçar. The 55-year-old former nurse is among many cancer survivors who are determined to inspire others in their fight against the disease.
Tuesday is World Cancer Day, and despite the advances in modern medicine, we're still far away from a complete cure for the disease. In Turkey, it was the No. 2 cause of deaths and killed more than 83,000 people in 2018, the latest year with available data.
Uçar, a resident of the northwestern city of Kırklareli, where she worked as a nurse since the 1980s, had the first sign of breast cancer back in 1997. She was too scared to confront the disease then and avoided seeing a doctor. It would take eight years to finally visit a doctor and only upon insistence of her colleagues. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent eight surgeries in five years and had to quit her job. After she retired in 2011, Uçar joined a local nonprofit for the fight against cancer. She now helps cancer patients and tells her own story to inspire them.
"I knew I made a grave mistake when I didn't see a doctor after I was diagnosed," she told Anadolu Agency (AA). "I am alive thanks to proper treatment," she says. Uçar now serves as the vice-chairwoman of the Fight Against Cancer Association where she gives psychological advice to patients and organizes activities for them. "People should be afraid of one thing: being late for diagnosis. The will for treatment is all they need. You shouldn't be scared. Look at me, I am very well and feel lucky. You should never succumb to pessimism," she says.
Convincing oneself is also key for recovery, she says. "I always told myself that I was just suffering from a lengthy flu," she says. Uçar never "locked herself in" and was never depressed. "I'd go out like any healthy person. I was more lively and thought more about my loved ones than myself. You need to resist," she adds.
Yeşim Çoban, another nurse who coincidentally worked at an early diagnosis center for cancer in the northwestern city of Tekirdağ, sets an example for other patients after surviving cancer. Forty-three-year-old Çoban decided to give a shot to an early diagnosis test and found out she had breast cancer. Another test revealed she also suffered from thyroid cancer. She did not believe it at first but started treatment anyway. "I had to fight this for my son," she says. Never giving up hope, Çoban went through painful chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. A fight for 18 months paid off, and she made a full recovery. "It is not something you cannot recover from if you have faith and fight back," she says.
"First comes denial and then anger for why it happened to me. But it did not take long for me to change my mind. I accepted it eventually and started my fight. My view of life changed then. I decided to fight it first to be with my son again and then for myself. I love life," she says. "I saw I had nothing to lose when my hair started falling. I thought my son would be scared when he saw me without hair but I received the greatest support from him. He also shaved his head just to show support," she added.
Çoban says "a little support goes a long way" for cancer patients. "I did it, so others can do it too." She also calls other women to regularly test for cancer, pointing out that early diagnosis is vital in fighting the disease.
Her son Furkan says he never believed that his mother would succumb to cancer. "I was worried but I never let her know it. I always supported her. I knew doing well at school would boost her morale and so I did. She was very happy when I got accepted to a prestigious high school," he added.
Fatma Sak, a retired journalist living in the city of Sakarya, penned many pieces about cancer during her career. When she noticed a lump in her breast three years ago, she thought it was an ordinary health problem. The pain, however, persisted, and she saw a doctor who diagnosed her with breast cancer. Fifty-two-year-old Sak, whose mother and brother also suffered from cancer but recovered, started chemotherapy. One year later, she got better and now works as a voluntary correspondent at a local newspaper with her husband. "I never felt fear, shock or anger when I learned I had cancer. I accepted my fate. It was a "gift" from Allah or rather, a "guest" in my body. I never panicked," she says, recounting her days with cancer.
Sak says she kept her spirits high during the painful recovery process. "I was like a mascot for the cancer ward at the hospital for other patients. Of course, we were all sick people there, but I was the optimistic one," she says.
She advises other patients not to be afraid of chemotherapy. "I trusted doctors and prayed a lot. In the end, I am better. Patients should only be careful about what they eat and never feel upset," she says.
Indeed, her husband Şener felt "worse" than her. "I don't remember the first 30 minutes after I found out she had cancer," he recounts. Next came hospital visits that only added to his anxiety about her life. "She was a better fighter than me," he says. "This was a test for us and helped us to strengthen our bonds," he adds.
Derya Eren, a 41-year-old mother of two, would probably have never known she had cancer before it is too late if it weren't for an unrelated hospital visit. She was hospitalized in the western city of İzmir for food poisoning after eating döner three years ago. When she did not recover in the expected time, doctors ran further tests and diagnosed her with a rare type of appendix cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, but the disease resurfaced a year later. She had surgery again and remained at the hospital where she met members of the "Dance With Cancer" association. She joined events for cancer patients and received psychological support. Along with support from her family, she recovered. "I never fell into despair and believed it was my fate. I was lucky to have an early diagnosis," she says.
Eren repeats the motto of the Dance With Cancer Association: "We are stronger, not cancer." "I never forgot it and thought my family needed me, and I had to fight cancer for them," she says. "You should not be afraid of cancer; you should be afraid of being too late for diagnosis," she adds.