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‘I am Sarah, and I Will Keep Talking About Cancer’

When Sarah El Samad beat ovarian cancer just over a year ago, she thought the hard part was over. But she quickly learned that life as a cancer survivor brought its own set of unique challenges.

“I always thought that cancer itself, or the treatment, was the issue, but now I would say that life after cancer is really a different ball game altogether,” said Sarah, who is a Global Medical Director, Atopic Dermatitis at Sanofi Genzyme and lives in Dubai.

After finishing her treatment in January 2020, Sarah found it difficult to return to her pre-cancer life and activities. Of course, the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing international lockdowns didn’t help.

“I was literally counting the days to the end of my treatment, so I could get back to my normal life. But then suddenly, we were hit with the whole pandemic situation. It hit me really hard because my life was interrupted, was stopped, again,” Sarah explained.

Sarah El Samad, an ovarian cancer survivor
Sarah started working remotely, and even though it wasn’t the same as being in the office, it gave her a sense of purpose and helped her cope during the lockdown. And with her colleagues’ support and her own determination, Sarah was able to be honest about her limits and bring a renewed sense of passion and commitment to her job.

Once the strict lockdown was lifted, and it was safe to start seeing a few people socially distant and masked, Sarah found it hard to communicate her feelings and boundaries with her family and friends. Her immunity was still building up post-treatment, so she felt uncomfortable around those people who initially supported her during her cancer journey. She was often hurt when they didn’t ask how she was doing anymore, and her sense of isolation grew. Physically she was getting stronger, but Sarah was struggling with her mental health.

“I thought I was fine mentally, but I realized I wasn’t okay, and I started to see a therapist,” Sarah explained. “I learned to proactively reach out to my friends if I needed help. There’s no right or wrong way to talk to a cancer patient or survivor, but sometimes people can be awkward or afraid to ask you about it.”

Sarah is determined to share her story and help address misperceptions around cancer. As Sarah explains, “Cancer is not a taboo thing. It's a disease like any other disease. But in many regions, it’s still perceived that way. Many people don’t even say the word cancer, referring to it instead as “that disease.”

To help raise awareness, Sarah started an Instagram account detailing her experiences as a cancer survivor and challenged herself to complete a 100 km bike ride by the end of January 2021, which marks the one-year anniversary of completion of her treatment. Not surprisingly, it’s the strength she discovered within herself while fighting cancer which helped with her training.

Sarah, an ovarian cancer survivor, standing with her bicycle after a cycling training session“The final 10 kilometers of cycling are always the worst, so I would just want to stop. I would tell my trainer: ‘I just want to give up,’” Sarah said. “I would literally be about to cry, but then I would remember that a year ago, I was barely able to walk, I couldn't go out. I missed so many things that were really important to me because of treatment, and that thought would keep me pushing, would keep me going.”

Sarah hopes she’s able to help others who may be battling cancer or putting off their screenings as she knows the importance of regular screenings personally. If it wasn’t for her sister’s breast cancer diagnosis a year prior to her own, she wouldn’t have recognized her symptoms as potential signs of cancer.

“I was traveling for work for more than half of the year, and when I came home, I didn’t prioritize getting a regular physical checkup. Even when I experienced bloating that was continuous for almost five, six months, it never occurred to me to see a doctor,” Sarah stated. “I would explain it away and say to myself it's something I ate, it's my travel, it's my busy lifestyle. I just ignored it.”

When Sarah sought care, she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. After undergoing treatment and being declared cancer free for more than a year, Sarah is stronger both mentally and physically than ever.

“I used to be someone that was always worried about everything, things that I now see as insignificant. Because when your health is impacted, especially with an advanced stage cancer, your whole perspective shifts. I was a complete workaholic, and though work also helped me through the pandemic, I realized it wasn’t the most important thing.”  Sarah explained. “Friends, family, and health; those are the most important things.”

Sarah has successfully fought cancer and prioritized her mental health post-treatment during a global pandemic; these challenges have encouraged her to become more open and expressive with those close to her. She now hopes to extend that open hand forward.

“The day I finished treatment I made a promise to myself that I would talk about my disease to raise awareness. Even if my story reaches just one person, I want them to know that they are not alone, and it can get better.”

This World Cancer Day, join Sanofi Genzyme and the global oncology community in sharing what motivates us in the battle against cancer. Follow the conversation on social media at #IAMANDIWILL and #WORLDCANCERDAY.

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