Ala Abdulla –
As she stood in line at the bank, waiting to collect her monthly salary, Rozhgar noticed the old woman in charge casting a filthy look in her direction. It was a look of barely disguised contempt, a look you might expect to see if you’d done something wrong, made a mistake. When her turn came at the front of the queue, the old woman ignored her, making no attempt to give Rozhgar her wages. Finally, when her patience was at an end and she could stand it no longer, Rozhgar addressed the lady, and asked why she was being treated in such a manner.
“Why have you done this to yourself?” was the old lady’s response. “Why on earth have you shaved your hair? Do you want to look like a boy?” she continued, raising her voice, “do you have no self-respect?”
“I haven’t done anything to myself,” replied Rozhgar calmly, “I have cancer”.
This is the story of an amazingly strong and beautiful woman called Rozhgar, and her journey through cancer; a woman whose life was one day changed in an instant by a single sentence from a doctor. It is the story of a woman who was forced to confront death face-to-face, but who remained brave enough to overcome her fears, and fight through her illness. When I met up with Rozhgar, she recounted to me her extraordinary and inspiring story.
As she woke up early one morning, Rozhgar noticed a small wound on her arm. Not thinking it to be anything serious, she put it out of her mind. But when the wound began to get bigger, Rozhgar decided to visit her doctor and have it checked out. The doctor, reassuring her, said the wound was nothing more serious than an animal bite, and would soon heal. But the wound did not heal, and as the days went by it continued to get bigger, until one day it was covering almost the whole of her face and body.
Rozhgar decided to visit a different doctor, who immediately recommended a blood test. It was then that Rozhgar was given the awful news. She was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer, and her condition was so serious she was not expected to live longer than a week. Rozhgar was terrified. She was not ready to leave this world – she still had so many plans for her future, so many goals left to achieve. Her whole life, she felt, still lay before her.
“Sometimes,” Rozhgar tells me, “we simply say to ourselves ‘so what if I die? Everyone has to die’. But when it becomes a reality, and you feel sure that you are about to die, things are suddenly not so simple, and you start to feel very vulnerable.”
“Everyone around you – your family and your friends – will ultimately carry on with their lives,” she continues, “they will stay as they are, go on doing what they used to do, and nothing will change.” Rozhgar explains the profound loneliness of that realisation. “You will be the only one who has gone, the only one wasn’t able to achieve her goals, and you no longer matter.” But this feeling, she tells me, inspired her to take charge of her situation, and to set about achieving her goals with whatever time she had left.
Rozhgar was forced to leave her home in Kurdistan, and go to Turkey for medical treatment. “I always believed that I would come back and carry on with my old life,” she recalls, “and that was my motivation.” During a course of chemotherapy, Rozhgar’s hair began to fall out, leaving her upset but at the same time optimistic that the treatment was working. “I used to go and talk to the other patients who were also suffering from cancer,” she tells me, explaining how she wanted to give others the motivation to hold on, and the belief that “everything was going to turn out alright.”
And for Rozhgar, miraculously, everything did turn out alright. Five months after arriving in Turkey, she returned home to Kurdistan as beautiful and as healthy as ever, to resume her unfinished life. Determined to be completely open and honest about her situation, Rozhgar refuses to wear a scarf or wig to cover up the effects of the chemotherapy. She believes that God made her go through this challenge for a reason, and that as a result, she should remain strong and not give in to her illness. “Any struggle you face is a challenge,” she notes. “Cancer was a war between me and my inner self, and you always try your utmost to win a war, don’t you?”
She says she does not mind people staring and judging her based on her appearance. “I think about it this way,” she notes philosophically, “people have a right to look – they don’t know what the issue is. I would probably do the same if I hadn’t gone through this experience myself.”
But Rozhgar believes her struggle against cancer has given her a different – and more positive – perspective on life. She cares more deeply for the people around her, and feels she values every second of every day, knowing just how precious and precarious life really is. “I am happy,” she beams. “I am not ashamed to be who I am, and I am proud. What happened to me was a gift from God.” The experience has also helped her to understand who her real friends are. “I have met a lot of great people along the way,” she tells me, “and I am thankful for everything.”
For Rozhgar, the more a person experiences in life, the more they learn. It is this philosophical approach that helped her overcome the most difficult moments of her life, and emerge a truly strong, powerful and confident woman. Her inspirational story shows how a person can face the stark reality of her own mortality, and yet carry on making the most of her life.