Feeling nauseous, Hiba Abdul Rahman leans on her husband, Muhammad Fareez Shah, 29, as she listens to him talk about their journey through cancer. Hiba, 28, was diagnosed with second stage breast cancer three years ago, barely two months after Fareez and her started dating. They were in love, but Hiba gave him the “green light” to walk away – after all, they’d only just started seeing each other.
“I really didn’t want him to feel the pressure to stay. I laid the cards on the table, told him about it right from the start and explained that I would have to go through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy.
“I felt that it would be better that he decided right at the start rather than walk away halfway through my treatment,” shares Hiba.
But Fareez chose to stick around.
“She wasn’t going to get rid of me that easily. To be honest, I thought hard about it. It was scary … did I want to be with someone who is really unwell and may not be with me in a few years? But I quickly realised that I would rather have a little with Hiba than a lifetime wondering what could have been.
“I knew she was the one I’d marry even then and I’d told my friends that I was going to marry her,” shares Fareez who had known Hiba since secondary school and held a torch for her for years.
Hiba started treatment almost immediately: six rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the size of her tumour, followed by a mastectomy to remove her left breast and then radiation therapy. The treatment was aggressive and often left her feeling weak, tired, nauseous and in pain.
Fareez wasted no time assuming the role of caregiver, sharing duties with Hiba’s family and close friends.
“We had a (Whatsapp) group called the “carebears” and we’d schedule our time so that she was never alone,” he explains.
It was challenging at first and the lawyer found himself torn in different directions.
“It was difficult. My law firm allowed flexible hours but it wasn’t enough. Colleagues were understanding but it was beginning to tax them as well. I was missing quite a few of her appointments … something had to give,” he says.
Fareez then decided to leave the firm he was with and start his own practice.
“He was literally working out of his backpack, from the hospital or my house,” shares Hiba.
Small things that count
As her caregiver, Fareez says that his primary role was to “be with Hiba” and provide her the support she needed.
“I didn’t do much, actually,” he says candidly. “Just being with her and making sure she ate her meals even when she had no appetite to eat. Or seeing that she took her medicines. Sometimes, she’d want to sleep but needed the curtains drawn to block out the sun.Carrying her bags. Just making sure the small things were taken care of so that she could rest,” he says.
For Hiba though, the support meant everything.
“Even after he’d told me that he was not going to leave me, I was cautious … I didn’t have any expectations just in case he did decide to leave.
“But every day, he gave me more reasons to love him. And it was nice to have a partner … someone who was there who cared so much. I was really lucky to have so much support from my family and friends too,” says Hiba.
To be a better caregiver, Fareez read up a lot about the treatments she was undergoing as well as about caregiving.
He realised early on that he couldn’t do it alone, nor could he solve every problem that cropped up, even though he really wanted to.
“I was very frank with my friends and even my colleagues about what I was going through … I wasn’t emotional and I didn’t need that type of support. But because I was frank, my friends offered help as much as they could and all these little gestures make things a lot easier,” he says.
He found a lot of helpful information online, not just about Hiba’s therapy but also on being a good caregiver.
“I learnt that I couldn’t solve every problem Hiba had. Some symptoms were manageable – like when she had no appetite and had a bitter aftertaste in her mouth, I got her lemon candy which helped.
“But when she had her mood swings or felt down and unwell, I knew I could not solve that and that was ok. I had to remind myself that it was the illness … it wasn’t her. I didn’t take things personally and made sure I was there to listen,” he shares.
Because Hiba was mostly indoors, resting, either in the hospital or at home, Fareez had to be creative about their dates.
“We were still trying to figure out how to have a relationship and get to know each other. It was actually fun. I had to think of how I could bring the entertainment indoors and we ended up doing a lot of projects. I bought colouring books and craft books. We played video games. She indulged me with my toys, we have five nerf guns now.
“We watched TV series and read books. We also made those heads over there,” he says pointing to three large 3D papercraft models on top of a bookshelf in their hall.
“We’re quite nerdy so we had a lot of fun doing things like that.”
He didn’t allow cancer to interrupt their romance. On the contrary, midway through her treatment, Fareez proposed.
He popped the big question on the last day of Hiba’s chemotherapy treatment, enlisting the help of her close friends. He went to the hospital with balloons and flowers ans asked Hiba to marry him.
“She said yes! Of course she was pumped with drugs at the time but there was no turning back,” he recalls, laughing at the memory.
The decision to get married was both romantic and practical, he explains.
“Because we were living apart, caregiving was quite challenging as I had to go between work to see Hiba and then back home at night. This just made it easier,” he says.
“He proposed at 9pm, mind you,” shares Hiba. “I’d only just finished my chemo and came back to my hospital room and … I said yes, and 15 minutes later I was asleep. It only sunk in two days later.”
The two wed in April 2016, while Hiba was still undergoing treatment.
She was HER2-positive (breast cancers that cells make too much of a protein known as HER2; These cancers tend to be aggressive and fast-growing) and she had to be on trastuzunab to reduce the risk of her cancer coming back.
It’s been two years since then and Hiba is on medication – up until March she was on oestrogen suppression tablets and has just switched to injections.
There are days when she feels unwell and nauseous but she’s a lot stronger and has started working for the National Cancer Society Malaysia.
“We’re thinking about trying for children soon,” says Fareez, smiling broadly at Hiba, excited atbout starting a new phase in their lives together.