Egypt Pulse

Egyptians affected by cancer find support, good-natured rivalry

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Article Summary
A nonprofit association in Egypt, CanSurvive, helps cancer patients and survivors cope with the physical and psychological challenges of living with the disease.

Surveying her kitchen like a queen who has just regained her kingdom after a fierce struggle, Samiha Samir is enjoying the spoils of battle — in this case, by sampling a variety of foods.

She remembers the tough times when she lost her taste for food after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. For six months, she could not eat anything, taking in only fluids. 

Yet she refused to listen to talk about her being sick, as she considers herself a fighter, rigorously facing her illness with a smile. And once in a while, cancer is merciful and lets her enjoy some happy moments. During those times, her doctor allows her to eat whatever she likes.

Samir talked about the day when she finally was able to return to her favorite hobby: cooking. 

In times of deprivation, she would enter the kitchen with her daughter to smell the food, trying to revive her taste buds. Although she is still undergoing chemotherapy, she is getting ready to participate in the “mashi" festival organized by the Egyptian CanSurvive nonprofit association in support of cancer patients. 

Mashi is an Egyptian dish of vegetables, usually zucchini, eggplant and peppers, stuffed with a rice-based filling.

Women dealing with cancer compete in the festival to prepare the most delicious mashi platter to impress a jury of men who are also struggling with the disease. Samir does not care about winning. In this competition, each participant wishes the others the best, because the objective is to fight society’s perspective on cancer and turn a diagnosis into a starting point instead of the end of the world, as many see it.

“I did not want my friends to visit me while I was in bed. I would sit with them and hide my pain to avoid burdening them with my suffering. But I needed moral support, and my daughter helped me and told me about the association,” she said.

“I participated in the association’s sessions and events, and I listened to other patients’ stories about how they fought their cancer.”

Iman Jamil decided not to waste the opportunity to participate in the mashi festival, especially after having missed the chance to partake in the pasta and fashion festivals to fight cancer. Each day, she thinks about an original way to prepare a unique mashi platter — and she promised to present her fellow survivors with the most delicious dish.

“I did not give in to the disease when I found out I had breast cancer. I tried to swallow my shock for my [sick] mother’s sake, but I failed. My mother passed away, and I was in despair. I insisted, though, on fighting my cancer, and other patients’ stories were inspirational to me. I followed their survival testimonies on the association’s page, and I drew from the spirit of challenge from my husband and kids, thanks to their support,” Jamil said. 

“The patient is the one who defines society’s way of looking at her,” she added.

Jamil complained that many people don’t know a lot about cancer and have old-fashioned ideas about those who are afflicted. They often think the patient is living her last moments, and they don’t believe she can live a normal life if she wills it. She said it is important not to succumb to people’s pessimism and their imaginary scenarios.

Jamil said her children and husband always encourage her to persist at activities such as the mashi festival.

“My kids know I am an excellent cook, and they trust that I will win,” she tells her “adversaries” with a smile. “But I do not care about winning. I care about the joy and love I feel among my fellow cancer survivors and my supportive family.”

Jamil does has some serious competition, however.

Mirvat Mahran fully expects to win. To look at her, you would never guess what she has endured in her battle with advanced-stage breast cancer. Her enthusiasm overflows, and she shares it with everyone around her. She doesn’t wait for consolation. Instead, she asks others about their problems and gives them moral support, comfort and solutions. The members of the association see her as a ray of sun among them. 

On the association’s Facebook page, she has many followers who encourage her in the competition. She answers them confidently, “I will win. There is no other way.”

Mahran might seem overconfident at first, but the aim is to stir up the competitive atmosphere to encourage those who haven’t participated yet to do so.

CanSurvive member Aya Mehsen said, “The competition and other events prepared by the association aim not only to support the patient but also to send out a message to doctors about the moral support patients need and how to boost their morale, because this is how they survive the treatment.”

CanSurvive director Esra’ al-Sharbini told Al-Monitor, “Cancer patients need moral support to fight society’s perspective, which sparks in them a fear of living with their disease. The association organizes several competitions to help cancer survivors cope with their sickness positively and to prevent it from interfering with their normal lives.”

Sharbini noted that the association basically suffers from lack of funding because many people are not convinced of the importance of moral support for cancer patients.

“Some people overlook the importance of the psychological factor for cancer patients and only care about the medical aspect,” she said. “The truth is, patients need all the psychological support they can get to walk them through the cancer stages and offer them medical and psychological advice.”

CanSurvive also organized a fashion festival for cancer fighters. Each participant cooperated with a fashion designer to create a dress that reflected her struggle with the disease and how she survived it.

Then there’s the pasta festival. “The idea was successful and prompted us to repeat it,” Sharbini said. “The winner will get a material and symbolic reward, and the aim behind all these activities is to tell everyone that cancer patients can live like everybody else and can do whatever they want without impediments.”

Found in: women, society, cooking, competition, chemotherapy, cancer

George Mikhail is a freelance journalist who specializes in minority and political issues. He graduated from Cairo University in 2009 and has worked for a number of Egyptian newspapers.

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