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This is the first edition of U Got Inspiration - an initiative to help inspire others through the stories of every day super heroes. In just a few days, I've received many stories that have astounded me. People go through things on a daily basis far more difficult than climbing Everest but we never know about it. Why? because the media is too busy reporting tragedy and because we sometimes don't fully appreciate the effect that our experiences can have on others going through the exact same thing at the exact same time, or anyone looking for that little boost of motivation to get them through their day. Please keep the inspiring stories coming on [email protected]
Today's story is about Lubna El-Elaimy and her own personal Everest... please share it.
The year was 2006. Lubna, age 25, had graduated 3 years earlier with a masters in Journalism. She was the Middle East Regional Editor at SOS-Kinderdorf International, a respected international NGO that takes care of orphaned and abandoned children. She loved her job and got to travel all over the Middle East. Life couldn't get any better or so her friends told her. Deep inside she knew something was missing. If she could only find it, everything would fall into place.
So on one sunny Cairo morning like any other, Lubna woke up to get ready for work. She had no idea that she was about to uncover the one thing that would turn her life around; a small bump near her throat. First she thought nothing of it. She went to work and went about her business. As the days passed, she began to feel sluggish, tired and began to put on weight. Worried, she visited a doctor to get some routine tests done. After a few days she got her results back; the doctor said that she had a problem with her thyroid gland and she needed more tests. A few tests and X-rays later, the doctor informed her that she had a lump in her gland and he recommended that she remove it immediately. Lubna was stubborn and refused. After all, she was only 25, and girls that age don't get problems like these and her family doesn't have any history of it.
Days passed. Then the days became weeks and months and finally a whole year went by. Throughout this time, Lubna's symptoms did not go away. In fact they got worse. She began to feel pressure on her vocal cords, she felt tired and depressed most of the time (Note to Omar: depression is actually a symptom of a low level of thyroid hormones in the body, along with excessive tiredness, dry skin and hair, weight gain, muscle weakness, aching joints). She could no longer keep up the cheerful demeanour that people knew and loved. When the lump on her throat became visibly larger, Lubna could not but face reality and went back to the doctor.
Only days later, Lubna braced herself for surgery. As she waited in the waiting room she thought about her life only one year ago and wondered how everything could change so fast. She tried to remain positive but it was hard. No number of people around her could change that. Then she went into the operating room and had the surgery. It was just a few days after her 26th birthday. For hours the doctors worked behind closed doors as her family and loved ones waited in anticipation. Finally the doctors emerged to announce that the lump was successfully removed. When the effects of the anesthesia wore off, Lubna heard the news and became ecstatic, ready to go back to her normal life. A few days later the final results of the test came through and to everyone's shock it turned out that the tumor was in fact malignant and was beginning to spread. Once again, Lubna was rushed to the operating room only days after the first surgery, but this time a little more desperate than the time before. According to the doctors, this operation was far more serious given the risk of harming her vocal cords; she could lose her voice. It was a very difficult time for her and everyone around her but eventually she came through and was cleared. The doctors warned her that the next 5 years would be critical and she should be prepared for a relapse. She had to live day by day.
Life after surgery was even tougher. She had to search all over Egypt for the right dose of radioactive Iodine and for a hospital that administers it in Egypt for two whole months. She needed the medicine to destroy any remnants of the tumor. To make matters worse, while waiting for the Iodine to be shipped into Egypt, she had to discontinue her thyroid hormone replacement medication as doctors warned that synthetic thyroid hormone interacts with radioactive Iodine. Without it she gained 20Kgs and constantly felt like her body was shutting down; she couldn't think straight or speak properly.
In her own words, "I felt like I was dying. The reason I survived according to the doctors was that there was still a small remnant of the thyroid gland producing just enough hormone to get me by. I remember one day, a few weeks after my surgery, I tried climbing one flight of stairs to my office, and I couldn't lift my legs. I burst into tears right there on the stairs. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I never felt lonelier or weaker."
As is with life, some people were supportive and others weren't. Some of her colleagues insisted she come to work even when she felt very sick. Others were very supportive and it was very touching how so many unexpected people showed their concern and support. One moving moment was when the office janitor got her number off a colleague and called to ask about how she was doing. These little gestures kept her going and she began to appreciate people differently.
Slowly Lubna started to get better. She dropped the weight she had gained and went back to exercising. She stopped smoking and paid more attention to what she ate. It wasn't like turning on a switch she says, it was a gradual process. Slowly she realized how much she had going for her and began to appreciate the simplest things in life, even being alive. She ran, she swam and did the things she always had but enjoyed them 100 times more. Life began to have a whole different meaning. It was incredible to her because nothing had really changed; she just began to think about the same things differently.
The year was 2010, Lubna became more confident and she was fast approaching the 5 year mark her doctors had warned her about. She now knew life was frail and that she need to seize every opportunity. So why not take it to the next leve she thought; why not do the things I never thought I could do. Lubna looked up at the heavens and in a moment of clarity, believed she could reach for the clouds if she wanted to. In fact, that's exactly what she was going to do! So in September of that year, months before her 5 year anniversary, she embarked on something she never thought she could ever do. "Climbing kilimanjaro seemed completely impossible so I thought why not. I now think that we have to try and experience whatever we can, because this is all we have; we don't know how much time we got so we need to make every day count". After 7 days of hiking through jungle, forest, alpine desert and surrounded by glaciers, Lubna made it to the top of Africa, and realized she had been wrong once again; she didn't just reach for the clouds, she was hundreds of metres above, looking down on them.
When Lubna first approached me to climb Kilimanjaro I could tell she was determined. I joined her and 25 other climbers in a charity climb/initiative called The Right to Climb to raise money for special needs and The Right to Live Association, organized by Wild Guanabana. On the climb itself I was blown away by how mentally tough she was day after day despite the challenges we faced. You can imagine how I felt when I learned the full story only days ago!
"The fact that three and a half years later (from her surgery), I climbed the highest mountain in Africa is nothing short of a miracle. For me it's a great personal triumph and that was one of the best moments of my life!"
A proud Lubna standing on the summit of Kilimanjaro!
Right now Lubna is living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia fulfilling a dream she had since she was 9 years old when she saw photos of this beautiful country. She says, "I knew I was going to come and live here, but I didn’t know how or what I was going to do. At 9 your ideas aren't very coherent, but I did it!" She's doing a second Master's degree in Publishing and Media studies and she has ambitions of starting her own publishing house and doing her PhD in another exotic country. She jokingly says that the problem now is that she has so many dreams! But she also understands that the only thing that stops us from achieving everything we set our mind to, is ourselves. And she now knows that she's never believed more in her own strength and determination.
I asked Lubna to give us some words of advice from her experience, and this is what she had to say:
- Your dreams are very important. You have to want something in life and go for it, no matter how strange or impossible or crazy it seems. Even if you don't have a plan, just start taking small steps towards the thing you want. Because reaching the thing you want is the most empowering and amazing experience ever!
- I hate hearing people say "I can't" because we seriously don't know what we can or cannot do unless we actually try to do it. And even then, you have to try more than once. I will never forget the one-legged man who was climbing Kili at the same time we were up there. Even with one leg and a set of crutches he managed to climb the highest mountain in Africa. I was happier when I saw him on the summit than I was to actually reach it myself.
- When I really think about it, I wasn't a very happy person before my surgery. I didn't appreciate my life enough and I had a very negative outlook on life. I didn't notice those small experiences and events that make things worthwhile. The experience of losing my health and struggling with it made me realize how fragile existence is, and how you never know how many days you have left. You have to live every day as if it were your last.
- Lastly, if you have a bump anywhere on your body, you should freak out! Go have it checked, it's better to be laughed at for being a paranoid hypochondriac than to discover a long time later that you have something serious. Don't take your health for granted, because you never know what might happen.
Lubna has decided that when she returns to Egypt she doesn't want to go back to full-time work right away. She intends to volunteer with the National Cancer Institute in Cairo or the Children's Cancer Hospital. Even though she doesn't know exactly what she can do there, she knows that all she needs to do is start and the rest will unfold. "Like with everything I've embarked on, I usually just have this vague dream in my head and I act on that; the details usually fall into place on their own".
My final note:
In 2006, Lubna never imagined she would climb a mountain. But she had also never imagined she would get cancer.
Count your blessings every day and remember they come in different forms. If it wasn't for cancer, Lubna would still be leading a regular life, waiting for something to change. Her illness taught her to fight to survive and to fight for what she believes in, and this always, always, make all the difference.
So have you always dreamed of doing something but talked yourself out of it, or worse, your close friends and family told you that you can't do it? Thank them for their concern and advice but take life into your own hands and follow your dreams. You only live once and you must try, to know.
I dedicate this blog post to my cousin Dr Sherine Fahmy who lost her fight against cancer this year. I also dedicate it to those who are still fighting. May god give you and your families eternal peace and the will to endure.