“I refuse to treat cancer as a death sentence”

Cancer. The big C. Both terrifying phrases we hope will never bring a sour experience to us or our loved ones. The truth is, cancer has become a daily struggle for many, as we will see in adverts, posts and campaigns all over Malta and Gozo during Breast Cancer awareness month. 

This week, we sat down with Beauty Therapist Hilda Farrugia, who says her background in Biology and Chemistry helped her throughout her journey with breast cancer.

“My science degree was crucial in helping me do my research. I had lost a cousin, who was a doctor, to cancer and she was just 32, so when I found the lump I knew something was wrong and was not afraid to face the music. I also have an aunt who has survived breast cancer”, she explains. 

We asked Hilda to take us back to the exact moment she found the lump. A moment she tells us she remembers clearly. “My reaction was to browse the internet and start doing my research. I booked an appointment with my gynaecologist shortly after who referred me to the surgeon”. The diagnosis of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, a very common type of breast cancer, came six weeks later.

“I remember calling my family, and my brother and his wife took me on a 10km hike. Yes, I went hiking. I knew my life would not be the same again, however, my first thoughts were ‘breast cancer is a curable illness, and I will not let a few cells define me”. These thoughts, Hilda tells us, kept her going through the entire process. 

“Yes, I went hiking. I knew my life would not be the same again, however, my first thoughts were ‘breast cancer is a curable illness, and I will not let a few cells define me.”

Thankfully, Hilda knew her body well, also thanks to regular breast examinations which helped her find the lump early. “I have always exercised and kept up my minimum daily walk of at least half an hour, or a swim, throughout the journey. I also had to adapt my diet, especially during chemotherapy, to minimise the side effects”, Farrugia explains, further emphasising that while leading a healthy lifestyle does not eradicate the risk of cancer, it will certainly help the patient overcome major obstacles. 

After reading about a resistance training programme for patients undergoing chemo in Australia, Hilda furthered her research and eventually sought help from the staff at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Their Physiotherapy Department had begun to review new patients, who can in turn ask their doctor to sign them up for physiotherapy. “I still am followed by the Physiotherapy Department”, she says. “They encouraged me to stay active and keep doing what I love doing; walking, swimming, but also gave me some resistance training exercises to add to my routine”. 

Farrugia describes Chemotherapy and losing her hair as “the single most challenging thing my body has ever gone through”, and expressed her gratitude at it being over. On the plus side, the process has also shown her the good in others. “I found a lot of support from family and friends- and also from government institutions, namely the Breast Care Clinic, whose staff were extremely helpful. When I was referred to the Oncology Department, I found a lot of support from there too. A school friend contacted me when I started chemo and said to me: “you are an individual. Do not be scared of other peoples’ stories”. 

“You are an individual. Do not be scared of other peoples’ stories”.

Her words of courage for those undergoing chemo also echo this. “Do not let go. Try making a small effort to walk. Yes, chemo destroys the bad cells AND the good cells. Exercise helps the good cells recover and helps release endorphins”. 

Asked what advice she would give to women, particularly those between 40 and 50, Farrugia spoke about regular breast examinations and check for any changes. “The number of persons who have contacted me, saying they have been through something similar, and are in my age bracket is incredible”, Hilda explains, also reminding those battling cancer to not be afraid to open up. “The amount of support I’ve received from people from all walks of life has helped me with my journey”, she reassures. 

Hilda tells us how she is now ready to start the final leg of this journey; Radiotherapy, before embarking on a ten-year road with hormone therapy to prevent cancer from coming back. “I hope to be able to put this year past me and regain my free spirit, resume my travels and explore the world”. 

Yes, cancer is a terminal illness, and many of us are scared to face the music. That, Hilda tells us, is when the smaller problem becomes the greater. “I for one refuse to treat it as a death sentence, but as a curable illness”, she insists. “Breast cancer found early has a high ten-year survival rate, and with the new treatments and medications patients also outlive those ten years, even with Metastatic Breast Cancer”. 

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