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Faith and Diagnosis: A Muslim Breast Cancer Survivor Shares Her Story

Posted on Oct 17, 2019
Guest Contributor


By Layla Abdullah-Poulos

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time of heightened awareness about a disease that claims tens of thousands of lives annually. More women die from breast cancer than other cancers. It impacts more African American women than any other race, and they are also more likely to die from it.

According to the American Cancer Society, there are over 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Although early detection increases the chances for survival, one study revealed that Muslim women may be less likely to undergo screening, making it important to encourage regular testing.

Breast Cancer

Graphic created by Layla Abdullah-Poulos. estimates more than 300,000 new breast cancer diagnoses in 2019, catapulting people and those around them into a terrifying reality.

"I was not totally surprised," Naima Abdullah told Haute Hijab. "I just had a feeling that it would be malignant." The Tampa, FL educator and mother was diagnosed in May of 2019. She shared how her faith helped her in the aftermath of the diagnosis. "My immediate feeling was sad, but I did not despair or feel sorry for myself because I understand that everything is qadr and that in whatever Allah (S) has decreed, there is good [in it]."

Faith and spirituality can help ground survivors during emotional turmoil and help them cope with the disease and treatment. According to one study, “Religion and spirituality can help cancer patients find meaning in their illness and provide comfort in the face of fear.”

Muslim women may lean on their Islam for comfort and strength, but treatments can impact physical stamina and affect one’s worship. When asked about the challenges that breast cancer treatments present to her worship, Abdullah describes days of pain that hinder her ability to perform full salah. "For the first several days after treatment, I experience a lot of pain in my bones and actually all over my body, so it was difficult even to sit and make salah." Despite the agony, Abdullah still fulfils her obligatory prayers. "Alhamdulillah, I manage. I just do not read longer surahs or do more than the fard prayers on those days, and I also have to sit for my prayers."

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(The acts of salah and performing wudu (ablutions) before praying are still incumbent upon someone who is sick or fighting a disease (and is in their mental capacity), however there are adjustments for how one may perform wudu (whether they must use water) and how one can pray (sitting, or even lying in bed). Alhamdullilah, Allah (S) offers us the opportunity to offer our prayer as much as possible while also making it easy.)

After diagnosis, survivors must learn about their cancer and weigh many options concerning treatment. According to Sibylle Loibl and Bianca Lederer, "In any patient diagnosed with breast cancer, the first and foremost goal is to administer the best possible care." Survivors must also navigate through hard conversations with family and friends.

"I hesitated [to tell] my daughter because I did not want her to worry and because she was expecting her first child," said Abdullah. "I hesitated [to tell] my brothers and sisters because I wanted to have more information to give them knowing that they would have questions about such things as 'what stage is it' and 'what type of treatment would I have.'"

Abdullah told Haute Hijab that she is grateful for the support of Muslim women survivors.

"I have two close friends that have gone the same thing and they have been very supportive and have been able to help me through this journey. "She also offered advice to Muslims about how to approach survivors: "Everyone’s experience is different, although there are some commonalities. I think that if you have questions, it is better to ask rather than assume that you know what they are going through or how they feel."

For more information about breast cancer screening, visit the CDC webpage. If you want to help educate your doctor and healthcare providers about how to provide care and be cognizant of your Muslim faith, check out this article by Basem Attum, Abdul Waheed and Zafar Shamoon on cultural competency from NCBI and this article by Fatma Zohra Mataoui and Lisa Kennedy Sheldon of the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.

Image pink balloons by jnprice73 from Pixabay.