Tamanna Punjabi sits down with UAE-based stylist, Yasmin Yousri, to discuss a journey they both have in common — that of battling cancer.
Yousri, who has emerged a survivor of cancer as many as three times, shares her story, insights, and advice with 24-year-old Punjabi, a content writer, who was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. On World Cancer Day, they chat about the idea of beauty, career, staying positive through tough times and about how cancer changes the survivor’s perspective on life.
Tamanna: Your story is truly inspiring and as someone battling cancer right now, it can be hard to remain positive on some days. From your experience, what role does positivity play when cancer comes visiting?
Yasmin: Positivity is very important when you fight cancer because cancer is the biggest enemy [of] being happy and stress-free. Cancer loves being sad and weak. Try to imagine cancer as a person; you will find that you are strong enough and can piss this person off with your smile, strength and positivity. [I] feel blessed [that I had] such a disease that [made me] stronger and more beautiful.
Tamanna: As a patient of lymphoma myself, I lost my hair soon after the first chemotherapy session and was initially shy to go out. Someone gifted me a wig, but I don’t know how I really feel about it. I am comfortable being bald, but the sense I get is that society would prefer me in a wig. What are your thoughts on the beauty standards that women are held to and how did you navigate that during your journey with cancer?
Yasmin: I used to wear a wig and society would keep talking about me [and my battle with cancer] behind my back. If you feel comfortable and you want to be bald, go out [the way you are, because I think] being bald is sexy. Either way, society will talk. You should feel comfortable and happy because, as I said, cancer’s biggest enemy is being comfortable and happy. Although you are fighting it, let go and feel free, like you’re flying. Don’t try to stress yourself to please society because you are the only one going through this journey.
Tamanna: I decided to go public about my journey through a blog and a lot of people told me it isn’t the best idea because it will affect how others will look at me in the future. As someone who has been vocal about dealing with cancer, how did you deal with people judging you? And do they judge you now as well?
Yasmin: When I started my Instagram account and started talking about my experience surviving cancer, a lot of people said that I am using my journey to become famous, but I kept going because I had a message to share, to inspire and motivate people to believe that they are miracles. Despite having cancer three times, I am living and pursuing my dream. I inspire other people; so if you want to do something, do it. Be an icon of inspiration and don’t listen to others.
Tamanna: You are a stylist yourself and a great one at that, the transition from a corporate job to fashion happened after you were diagnosed with cancer. You’ve attributed the shift in careers to cancer — can you tell me a bit about the transition and why cancer was the main motivator in changing careers?
Yasmin: Before cancer, I was career-oriented and dreamed that I would be an executive manager, a vice-president or a managing director. After I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, I was still in denial but I tried to be very positive. The second time, I was much stronger but I thought that I was losing my career. The third time, after I defeated the disease, I got promoted and I thought that it was a sign to keep going in terms of my career. But, two years after that, I decided to quit and pursue my dream because I got a sign that it wasn’t worth it and that I had to do something for myself. You only live once, and if I don’t do what I love, I will lose a lot. This is why I owe cancer, because it made me a much stronger person and helped me see life from a different perspective
“Whoever isn’t going to encourage me, there is no space for them in my life.”
Tamanna: There are days when I ask “Why me?” What did you do when you felt that way?
Yasmin: Whenever you feel like questioning yourself ‘why me,’ try to find the positive side of having cancer. I always said to myself that I am blessed. It’s like a detox process for yourself. I know it’s a tough and heavy detox process, but when you think about it, chemotherapy kills all your cells and you’re going to regenerate new cells. You are like a newborn baby who gets to live their life for a second time and God gave you this second chance. Not all people have this chance through their life journey.
Tamanna: A lot of people have started treating me with pity wherever I go, which is something I genuinely dislike. I have now started avoiding people with negative energy because it drains me. Did you face something similar and if yes, what did you do?
Yasmin: People used to treat me with pity and I used to dislike it too. But I was always laughing, always being funny, going out with my friends, trying to live my life normally. If I heard any negative comments or negative words, I would distance myself from these people, because whoever isn’t going to encourage me, there is no space for them in my life. So, try to always be surrounded by positive people who help you go through this journey, to be stronger and do what you want while fighting cancer.
Tamanna: What was your initial reaction when cancer came back for the second time and then the third time? Why did the doctor say it recurred and what could have been done to avoid that?
Yasmin: When it came for the second time, I was in denial and shocked. But, after two weeks I went and cut my hair and asked the doctor to go for radiotherapy, because I didn’t want to go through chemotherapy again. This was especially because the second time, it came just five months after the first treatment. I wanted a break from the chemotherapy. But, there wasn’t that much progress [with radiotherapy]. Then I went through three protocols before the bone marrow transplant. The third time it occurred, I didn’t believe it because I felt that I was OK, and that I didn’t have cancer. When I consulted my doctor, he told me that I would have to go through a tougher and heavier chemotherapy session and that a transplant wasn’t an option again. I didn’t want to because I believed that I was free of cancer, and so I went through with another therapy which is chemotherapy but is administered through pills. Through it, I was living my life normally. Today, I have been cured and am eight years clean and clear.
“Without cancer, there wouldn’t be a Yasmin that is inspiring and motivating people and doing what she loves.”
Tamanna: I often wonder if my health challenges will ever end completely. What piece of advice would you give yourself while you were in the midst of your battle with cancer, now that you know you’re healthy and have overcome the disease?
Yasmin: Life goes on and it is worth living. And, to never take my health for granted.
Tamanna: You’ve been very vocal about your journey, but are there any bits from your diagnosis and the road to recovery that you still find difficult to share with people? How is what you hope for now different from what you hoped for before you were diagnosed?
Yasmin: No, I didn’t hide anything from the people or the followers [of my social media account]. I was totally transparent with my journey because people have to learn from it, have to be inspired from it, not because it is my journey but because my journey resembles a lot of others.
Before being diagnosed, I was a totally different person. One who would never ever imagine that she is going to be diagnosed with cancer three times. I am so happy now that I was diagnosed with cancer and that I survived it three times. It really changed and shaped my personality, so I am very grateful.
Tamanna: What are the three things you would tell a person who has recently been diagnosed with cancer?
- You are blessed.
- Be grateful.
- You are a very strong, unique and miraculous person.
Tamanna: One thing I have recently been feeling is that life is passing me by as I deal with this disease. People I love are getting married, others are graduating and I am unable to be a part of their happy moments because of the restrictions I have, such as not being in crowded places because of low immunity. Did you face such situations and how did you counsel yourself?
Yasmin: The first time I had cancer, a lot of my friends were getting married. Some of the ceremonies I would attend, others I would not. Believe it or not, I used to go wearing a wig, with pale skin. The ones that I wasn’t able to attend, they understood that it was because I was ill or because of my immunity. If you want to be a part of your friends’ ceremonies or families, you can send them videos, text messages or WhatsApp them. Don’t try to pressure yourself to be with them. If you’re OK and your immunity is OK, go for it. If not, go for video calls or video notes or anything. People will understand.
Tamanna: How did surviving this disease change your perspective and what are some lessons it taught you?
Yasmin: Surviving cancer changed my perspective on life. I chose to always be happy. No compromise on my health. Never underestimate myself. I’m a strong person. I have been through a lot and surviving cancer three times wasn’t that easy for me. It was a tough journey, but now I feel like this journey is a reward. I owe a lot to cancer because without cancer, there wouldn’t be a Yasmin that is inspiring and motivating people and doing what she loves, always feeling happy, grateful and blessed. So, this is a journey and you’re going to be a totally different, positive, bright person [because of it].