One of many people’s biggest fears is becoming seriously ill. But how do you carry on when it really happens? Our colleague Susana Freire from OCP Portugal was diagnosed with cancer one year ago. In an interview, she shares her experiences with us and tells us how she manages to stay positive.
Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Susana Freire and I am 42 years old. I have been working for OCP Portugal since December 1995. I am a pharmacist and also completed some training in management and strategic marketing. I work in the commercial department as a client manager and southern sales supervisor. I am also the Pharmaceutical Director at the Alverca warehouse. I have two children who are 10 and 8 years old and I love spending my time with them. Together we like watching movies, riding our bicycles, taking photos, travelling or just walking in the countryside.
When did you find out that you have breast cancer?
I found out I had breast cancer in May last year. It all began with a strange lump in my left breast. I decided to go to the doctor in April and he sent me for some tests, but told me not to worry. Two days before my 42nd birthday, I had the tests done. Afterwards they asked me to stay in the waiting room just to be sure everything was OK. I waited and waited and suddenly the radiologist who had conducted the examination walked into the room, which was now empty apart from me, and said: “Something is wrong; I am going to call your doctor to tell him that you need to have more tests”. I had a strange feeling, just like I was in a movie!
How did you feel at that moment?
The moment I heard the bad news, I felt fear. It was a childish fear, like when you are very young and you know something serious is going to happen. I hadn't had that feeling in years. Then I thought about my loved ones and how sad they would be. The thought “thank God it’s not one of my children” burst into my mind.
How did you cope with the illness?
In the first few days, you only have time to do the scheduled things, like you are running a business and have to plan lots of important things (tests, appointments) and make a lot of tough decisions. This leaves you with no time to think about the problem and it helps you just to go on. Then you go on having more tests and receiving good as well as bad news. Another thing that helps is continuing to work and deal with daily life.
Has it changed the way you think about health?
I am a pharmacist so for me health is an important asset. However, I now care more about my health and the health of others. After all, we are in the healthcare market and work to deliver health solutions every day. On the other hand, I always think positively because I know a lot about drugs and how they work. I imagine that for those who are not part of this world, everything certainly feels strange and scary.
For me, “More positives lives” means: it’s possible to learn to be happy under any circumstances!Susana Freire
Have the priorities in your life shifted? If so, how?
For the first time I had a real sense of how finite things are. Because of that, you start to think about the present and never about the future. When you know you are ill, you also feel raw and sensitive, and start seeing the world with different eyes. You really pay more attention to details, to nature, to people you meet and to the little things that they tell you, even a simple smile. The good thing is that you discover you have more courage than you ever imagined. You understand that you are strong and that nothing is going to keep you down.
The main priority is to win the battle against cancer. You are the winner. My priority is my family, who helped me a lot during this process. Especially my children, just because they exist and are beautiful. I feel like I have the obligation not to let them down, not to disappoint them, not to let them suffer.
Another priority that emerges is to help others. You really need to do this, for example by volunteering. I joined as a volunteer in a women’s association called “Ame e Viva a Vida” (Love and Live Life). It’s an association of women who have undergone a mastectomy. This association helps women to overcome this period of life and to live happily with their differences. Raising funds is a key activity for the association because it only survives on member contributions and donations. The association has a presence at certain events, such as the “Portugal Open” in tennis. If you would like to get involved, please go to: www.ameevivaavida.pt.
What helps you stay positive?
At the beginning, simply not believing that it was happening helped me to stay positive despite the illness. In the early stages cancer doesn´t hurt. It is a silent disease, so I didn´t feel ill. Then I had the surgery and it got more real. I was not afraid of that moment because you become anxious to have the cancer taken out of you. It doesn’t belong to you and you want it removed. At that point, I was relieved. Afterwards, you understand that the process is only partway over.
When you start doing chemotherapy, things change. You need more positive help. I got that positive energy from people whom I met in the hospital on a daily basis. They were much more ill than I was but gave me so much comfort. It was a great lesson! (During one of my chemo sessions, I even had the pleasure of seeing the book I was reading at that moment autographed by the author – António Lobo Antunes – a great moment). (Note: Lobo Antunes is regarded as one of the most important contemporary Portuguese authors.)
What would you like to share with us?
I must remind all women to pay attention to their bodies. If you notice something wrong, please don’t ignore it and pretend that nothing is happening, because things will only get worse. Also, after turning 40, attend your annual mammography check-up: it´s a simple examination that can save lives (one in ten women will get breast cancer).
Also, be more aware of what you eat. Eat more healthy food. Stay off the red meat, as well as milk and yogurt. They are no good for your health in general. Eat fruit and vegetables - the so-called super-foods - and drink water with a pH higher than 7. Spend your life doing positive things, live a more positive life.
I think it’s always possible to be happy, to look on the bright side, and to find meaningful aspects that allow you to have a good life under any circumstances.