Inspired by Lulua Faizullabhoy

Her story represents German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s view, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Breast cancer did touch the 40-year-old Dubai resident,
but not her soul, her thoughts or her heart. A mother of two girls, graphic designer
and the owner of a cleaning company, Lulua not only defeated the dreaded disease,
she also scaled Europe’s highest peak - Mt Elbrus - just four months after her surgery
in March 2018.

When did you start climbing?

I was overweight when I moved to Dubai eight years ago in 2011. I had left my job in the US after the birth of my first child and was not physically active. In a bid to lose weight, I started running half marathons and joined a fitness group – Dubai Daily Fitness. I found people with similar interests and we did various group activities including hiking and diving. We then decided to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

A friend of mine asserted that the climb would be a life-changing experience. I had never had an experience that I would call life-changing. Just a beginner, I wondered if this trip would change me as a person. I camped for the first time and it was a beautiful journey, not only because it helped me push my limit physically. I felt humbled to be in front of a huge mountain, which made me feel like a nobody and all my problems appear small. You cannot play with nature, nor claim that you conquered a mountain. Instead, you allow it to take you over.

Out of the 10 group members, some good hikers could not make it to the top due to altitude sickness. At times even great mountaineers cannot climb certain mountains. Sometimes it is just not your day. Maybe the mountain does not want you to climb. It is a spiritual journey whereby each step that you take on the mountain helps you introspect, challenges you and defines you. That is what I like about climbing mountains. After Kilimanjaro, I was looking forward to my next summit.

Tell us about your journey to Elbrus.

I wanted to climb Elbrus in 2017, but I had an accident while cycling. I got screws fixed to my ankle and a plate in my left arm which was removed a few months ago. In January 2018, I signed up for Mt Elbrus and decided to go for it come what may.

Shortly afterwards, I fell ill for a week. It was strange as I have a strong immune system. A huge lump had emerged on my breast overnight. In March I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a surgery two weeks before I turned 40. They removed a large chunk of flesh from my breast and some lymph nodes. My radiation therapy was daily for five weeks.

I did not give myself much time to dwell on what had happened to me. The doctors insisted that I wait at least a year before indulging in any rigorous physical activities. I had no upper body strength, nor range of motion. But I told myself I would still go ahead. I need not climb all the way and just do what I could manage. However, I am a goal driven person and did not look at the task as a risk but a positive challenge. My surgeon wrote, “If this is what makes you happy then go for it.”

In a way, the disease came as a blessing. I had four months from April to August to train for my expedition. I ate well and rested. In May, I carried light bagpacks and climbed 50-60 staircases. My coach, who is a good friend, mapped out a conditioning programme for me as climbing Elbrus requires endurance. I did a lot of workouts, hikes and outdoor training. Then, I took isokinetic and VO2 max tests (to determine functioning and endurance capacity) and my results were pretty good at 75% to 80%. I was determined to go for the expedition.

I love being outdoors. I was happy working hard for the summit regardless of what the outcome would be. I was longing to go back to the mountains, feel the fresh air and just let go of what cancer did to me. I went with a very open mind.

Many go on expeditions hoping to get to the top. I took one day at a time. The climb was amazing! I felt physically fit, even more than I was for Kilimanjaro.

What is your path to recovery like?

I have been taking preventive hormonal pills which work like mild chemotherapy. I have to continue with these for five years. The doctors believe that you get closer to the safe zone with each passing year. I have been getting tested every three months. From next year, I would have to get checked twice a year.

The side effects caused by the pills, however, are taking a toll on my body. The doctors have suggested some big steps like removal of my uterus, but I am going to keep all my organs intact. There are days when I cannot get out of bed and feel tired. So I give myself that time and rest well. I will continue to monitor myself. Rock climbing helps maintain my upper body strength.

What is on your platter?

Fresh food and home-cooked meals. I have cut down on sugar but I do enjoy my desserts.

I have made small alterations in my food habit like cutting down on red meat and avoiding using a microwave (a source of radiation). I am a coffee person, so I balance it by drinking plenty of water, sometimes with honey in it, in the morning.

Do you think being diagnosed with cancer was purely bad luck?

Perhaps it is luck or the lifestyle which we are leading. Cancer was nowhere in my family history. I am worried about my daughters, who are not fully aware of my situation. I will tell them when they are a bit older.

What is your source of strength?

My family support. Both my daughters are always excited about my climbing activities. They give me personalized T-shirts and tell their friends about my achievements. My husband and children often accompany me for hikes and outdoor activities.

What’s next on your list?

I am looking into doing a mountaineering course this year. I want to know the technical aspects of climbing. Last month (in February), I did ice climbing for the first time in Georgia.

I am interested in climbing Mont Blanc.

What message would you give to other breast cancer survivors?

This is not the end. There are times you may feel like this is it, this is my life. The idea of “I cannot” comes from people and society. You must follow your dreams. Take just one step at a time and forget the big picture for once. Each step is an achievement. That is what I did during strength training after surgery. I could barely walk a kilometre and wondered how I would climb a mountain in four months.

There are times which are good and times which are bad. Sometimes, I feel pathetic when I cannot work out like before. I feel like a failure and cry. Earlier I used to squat 60kg and now I do 45kg. But I tell myself that it is ok. It is important to work on it and not give up. It is a phase and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. It is not easy to stay positive given what you are going through, but you have to believe it will get better. In your next phase, you will be much stronger. But you have to work positively towards it. Do something small every day and do not compare yourself to anyone. Give yourself time and push yourself consistently.  

What would you say to officegoers with ‘no time for fitness activities’?

What are you waiting for? That ‘perfect moment’ will not come. Sign up, pay for it and you will do it. If you want something, you will make it happen. Plan with/involve others so that you cannot back out. Make a solid plan and lock it in.

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