• A Tanzanian feast. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
Zahra Mohammad was 49 years old and when she discovered she had breast cancer. Although the news was shocking there was one consolation - she could continue to eat treasured Tanzanian foods.
Zahra Mohammad, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

21 Oct 2020 - 11:52 AM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2020 - 12:09 PM

I was born 61 years ago in a small region called Lindi in the southern part of Tanzania.

I first moved to Australia in 1998 and have lived between these two countries ever since. But I’ve never forgotten my birth country and still make and eat traditional foods like ugali (made from white cornmeal), lentils, curries and lots of other African dishes.

Growing up, we didn’t really need to know how to cook. So I taught myself how to make traditional foods when I came to Australia. I learned a lot from the Internet.

Being able to enjoy the traditional foods that I grew up eating while living here was really important to me. Food is what connects me to my two countries: Tanzania and Australia.

Being able to enjoy my traditional foods that I grew up with while living here was really important to me. Food is what connects me to my two countries: Tanzania and Australia.

I've always been healthy, so cancer was a real shock

The traditional foods we eat regularly typically contain a lot of carbohydrates. But I’ve always eaten everything in moderation. I also do exercise every day and have never drunk or smoked.

So when my husband encouraged me to get a breast cancer check a few months after he had a heart attack in 2008, I was very resistant. I said to him ‘I am so healthy. I eat a balanced diet. I've never been overweight. I walk seven kilometres a day. There is nothing wrong with me. You’ve just spent two months in hospital following a heart attack so you’re freaking out about the possibility of me getting sick’.

Eventually, I agreed to getting checked out, and had an ultrasound and mammogram. A few days later, I was told I had cancer in my left breast – an invasive ductal carcinoma.

I was only 49-years-old. The news shocked me.

My doctor told me my cancer was aggressive and I had to get treatment as soon as possible because my cancer could spread twice as fast as [it would in someone older].

Unfortunately, at the time, my mother-in-law was on her deathbed in Tanzania, and she was waiting for us to return. I was allowed to go and see her but I had to go back to Tanzania and return within two weeks. When I came back, my treatment started. I had a lumpectomy and 30 shots of radiation.

While I was overseas, I lost six kilos worrying about my children. That’s when it hit me: it was so important that I didn’t lose weight and stayed healthy during my treatment. A big part of maintaining a healthy weight was maintaining a balanced diet.

I remember asking my doctor about what I could eat during treatment. For some reason I said ‘I eat a lot of chillies. Can I continue to do that?’ She said that was okay and it would be fine to keep eating everything in moderation – just as I did before.

Given that I love food, I eat everything and I cook everything, I was so very grateful that although I had cancer, I could eat whatever I wanted.

I didn’t have to let go of my traditional foods and I didn’t have to lose my culture. For example, I am a Bohra Muslim so sometimes, when there is an occasion like New Year’s Eve we all sit down together as a family and eat traditional foods. We sit on the floor, put our food on a big steel plate called a thaal and eat with our hands.

When you eat together it makes a huge difference to the way you think and how you feel. To me, my family and culture are everything. Being able to continue to eat traditional foods with my family after I was diagnosed with cancer meant so much.

Eating the way I wanted during treatment also gave me more positivity. It’s so important to be positive in life, especially when you have cancer. I believe that's 50 per cent of the medicine. I also believe that cancer will never return.

"Eating the way I wanted during treatment also gave me more positivity...I believe that's 50 per cent of the medicine."

Receiving a cancer diagnosis at age 49 was a big wake-up call. It makes you realise the importance of getting your breasts checked with both an ultrasound and a mammogram. I encourage everyone to go for regular check-ups, even if they are in good health.

Getting cancer was also a reminder that we should always do our best to be positive, to spend time with family and to eat the foods you like in moderation. Being in good health and happy is so important.

This October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the National Breast Cancer Foundation are shining a light on the nine per cent of Australian women with breast cancer yet to reach the five-year survival mark. The foundation's annual Pink Ribbon Breakfast will run throughout the month to raise funds for research and awareness of the cause. For more information, click here.

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