Hamza Iskandar: From cancer patient to warrior

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Updated 05 November 2014

Hamza Iskandar: From cancer patient to warrior

Often times we hear of someone getting ill with a disease or another being diagnosed with cancer, it’s far too common now. The amount of patience and finding that inner strength to go through the ordeal of having to face a danger emerging from one’s body can’t even be imagined unless you go through it yourself. It is a battle of will and faith over strength, a disease so dangerous that it plays with one’s mindset and weakens that will. This young man’s will was put to the test two years ago when he was diagnosed with a type of cancer so rare for his age group, that the chances of survival were less than 15 percent. Hamza Iskandar, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Business and Administration, a lovable, humble and high spirited personality adored by his many friends and family, went through a journey that changed his whole perspective of life as we know it. This is young Hamza’s story.

How did your story start with cancer?
It was around the beginning of 2012, it was a normal day and I was getting ready to go to my university and head to the gym right after, but that day I wasn’t feeling well. I took a nap, skipped my classes and was going to get up to go to gym, but as soon as I woke up, I wasn’t able to feel my legs and my arms. I tried getting up but fell, I felt dizzy, had a hard time breathing and called on my sister but she thought I was joking, but I was serious and so I called my dad and told him I couldn’t feel anything. As soon as my dad saw my face, he quickly grabbed me and carried me to the car and called my mom. We sped to the hospital 20 minutes away and as soon as I opened the door at the ER, I threw up blood and blood clots. It was so much blood that the nurses thought I was stabbed. I had an emergency endoscopy and they saw that I had internal bleeding. That was the start of the problem.

How long did it take to figure out what the problem was?
It took a long time actually, I was born with a congenital heart defect and at the age of 6, I had my first open heart surgery and had a mechanical valve installed, I had another at the age of 12. So it was thought that it was due to my heart problem. I stayed at the hospital for two weeks but my vomiting and dizzy spells were still not resolved. For four months I was up and down, I had 8 endoscopies at one of the hospitals that I always follow up in for my heart problem. Each time I have one, the internal bleeding obscures the results but they suspected a stomach ulcer and a tear in the esophagus. I changed my doctor and by the 8th endoscopy, the final diagnosis was that there is a possible unknown object on the esophagus which was then discovered to be a 2 cm tumor. That was basically a shock to my system and the start of my downfall into that dark place in my head. The doctor studying my case determined that I had to remove my stomach in order for all my symptoms to reside. But I refused profoundly, thinking that if I wanted to live I’d just have to live with it and enjoy my life, I booked my flight to Poland for a commercial shoot and went to enjoy myself, ignoring my diagnosis and never felt better.

How did your family take it?
It was very difficult for them, but my mom would not give up. She was corresponding with a number of hospitals in the United States telling them of my case and was waiting for a reply until finally we got a reply from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. It was then that we had a glimmer of hope. My dad and I headed to the States and that’s how my introduction to the reality of my situation happened. After a month of tests, cat scans and hospital visits, the doctor’s diagnoses was Stage 3 gastroesophageal cancer, in four months my tumor grew from 2-3 cm to 8 cm, spreading to my stomach. The realization of my cancer diagnosis put me in a place where I was literally seeing flashes of my life and it got me paranoid, I was in a dark place and couldn’t speak or hear anyone saying anything about it.

After the initial shock of the prognosis, what happened next?
I was told that I had to start a brutal four months of chemotherapy and had to take medication twice a day. That was extremely difficult, I cried and wept on a couch thinking this is the end of me being me. My curiosity was peaked and I started educating myself on my cancer and with the support of my father and my family in the States with me, I started to let things go and believe that this is a test and Allah has a reason for my state at the time. Ideas and thoughts were swimming in my head and I wanted to figure out my next step to get myself out of the depressing mood, the idea was just building in my head. What snapped me out of it was an old couple sitting with me in a chemotherapy session. They were around 90 years old, both diagnosed with cancer (the husband had four tumors in his head and his wife had two) and they were still fighting, even at their age they still believed in hope. It was a slap back into reality that I have Allah, a family to go back to, friends I still love and a fan base that roots for me. My head was swimming with thoughts.
What steps did you take to change your state of mind and attitude toward your prognosis?
As soon as I went back home, I created a page on Facebook. Because I’m good at marketing, I created “I fight cancer with a smile” to tell my story. My dad was the one who helped me with the name, he said I was a fighter and the most precious thing I had (he believed) is my smile. It was my first step to my mental recovery.

Since starting your Facebook page, you’ve since moved on to short videos on YouTube, updating your followers on your situation. How did your surroundings and people around you help with your mental recovery and allow you to go ahead and tell the world?
Everywhere I turned in the hospital there were posters of encouragement, doctors and nurses were always smiling and giving you hope that you will get through this and it’s just a matter of time when you will show positive results. I kept asking myself why is everyone so optimistic? Why can’t they see the fact that I am sick? A lot of questions were in my head, it’s a change of pace when you are surrounded with positivity instead of negativity. It changes your demeanor. I simply went on YouTube, opened the webcam and recorded my first video telling everyone who I am, what I’m doing in Texas and why I was fighting for my life.

How long did it take you to move from the stage of “OK, I’m sick” to “let’s fight this thing!”?
It took me two hours. It was because of that couple I mentioned earlier. I simply made a commitment to myself that I will continue fighting. I uploaded everything about me on some of the famous social networking sites like Kik, Facebook, and YouTube. Even when I started getting my radiation sessions, it usually takes around an hour to complete, so the nurses would ask me if I wanted to hear something. They mentioned different artists then mentioned some of our Imams like Al-Sudais or Al-Shouraim who recite recordings of the Holy Qur’an. They helped trigger my positive mindset.

With all the difficulties of radiation and chemotherapy sessions, how did you cope with the ups and downs?
I can’t explain how hard it was, what made me realize that I’m ok was the fact that as soon as I head home, I would always find extremely encouraging messages, e-mails and people telling me of their stories. Reading all those messages made me feel better even while my skin was burning from the chemo.

What was your most difficult time in this entire ordeal?
I’d have to say by the end of my radiation, I lost 35 kilos, I couldn’t swallow my own saliva, I wasn’t able to eat anything, that was brutal. I had to do a partial gastrostomy, they had to take 80 percent of my stomach and a bit of my esophagus, but at least I had a bit of my stomach left. With all that bad, I still felt OK and thanked Allah for being alive. I also thank Allah for having a great support system, my family was my rock, they were fighting with me.

What was the best part of your cancer recovery?
When radiation and chemotherapy sessions end, every fighter has to ring a bell, it signifies the end of your fight and when I did, radiation was the worst of all, for myself and my family. As soon as I rung that bell, I felt a huge weight lifted off of me and I just broke down and cried tears of joy in my dad’s arms. I was coming home.

Coming home, what were you feeling at the time?
I felt loved! Everyone I knew came to the airport to greet me and welcome me back. It was a surreal moment. I felt free at last. No more tubes, no more therapy, no more hospitals.

What have you been doing since coming back?
I haven’t stopped fighting; I opened my small cancer fighting support center, which I hope one day becomes a large center to serve those who need it most. I’ve been on different TV shows spreading the word and helping to encourage those who think that cancer is a death sentence that it is not, it’s a fight for life. I’ve been contacted by a program called “Laish La”. They helped in changing the name of a cancer unit at the International Medical Center in Jeddah. With the help of the team and Dr. Waleed Fetaihi, I was able to change their unit’s name from the IMC Cancer Patient Center to the IMC Cancer Fighter Center. I kept visiting hospitals and patients as well as giving lectures in Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, telling them my story with the hope that I was able to change their ideas about cancer patients and helping to spread positive vibes instead of negative, because that is what a support system is all about.
Hamza is a regular human being just like each one of us. What makes him special is that not only did he endure one of the hardest tests of life, but he also told the world about it one video at a time, one message at a time. The life of Hamza hasn’t halted to a stop with a simple prognosis, in fact it made him stronger. He believes that he can, will and did beat the ugly disease which is cancer. Follow young Hamza as he continues to live his life through his Instagram, Kik and Facebook accounts.

Email: [email protected]

Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

Updated 19 May 2019

Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

  • Iceland received around 2.3 million tourists last year
  • The influx of visitors can disturb the natural landscapes in the country

FJADRÁRGLJÚFUR, Iceland: A large sign warns motorists that Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon is closed to visitors but drivers keep on coming down the narrow gravel road. A ranger at a roadblock has to explain why no one can pass: The vulnerable landscape cannot sustain more visitors.
Blame Justin Bieber, the Canadian pop star with a worldwide reach.
Bieber’s magical music video “I’ll Show You” was filmed at the canyon and seen by millions, creating overwhelming demand for the once-pristine spot. For a chance to follow in Bieber’s footsteps, his fans are not letting a few fences, signs or park rangers keep them away.

Eager visitors try to sweet-talk ranger Hanna Jóhannsdóttir into opening the gate. Some offer bribes. They should know in advance it’s not going to work.
“Food from people’s home country is the most common bribery,” said Jóhannsdóttir, who recently turned down a free trip to Dubai in exchange for looking the other way at trespassers.
The Bieber-inspired influx is one part of a larger challenge for Iceland — the North Atlantic island nation may be too spectacular and too popular for its own good.
Last year 2.3 million tourists visited Iceland, compared with just 600,000 eight years ago. The 20% annual uptick in visitors has been out of proportion with infrastructure that is needed to protect Iceland’s volcanic landscape, where soil forms slowly and erodes quickly.
Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson said it is “a bit too simplistic to blame the entire situation on Justin Bieber” but urged famous, influential visitors to consider the consequences of their actions.
“Rash behavior by one famous person can dramatically impact an entire area if the mass follows,” he told The Associated Press.
Bieber has the third-largest Twitter account at over 105 million followers, after Katy Perry and Barack Obama, according to friendorfollow.com — and he has over 112 million followers on Instagram.
In the viral video — watched over 440 million times on YouTube since 2015 — Bieber stomped on mossy vegetation, dangled his feet over a cliff and bathed in the freezing river underneath the sheer walls of the canyon.
“In Justin Bieber’s defense, the canyon did not, at the time he visited, have rope fences and designated paths to show what was allowed and what not,” Gudbrandsson said.
Over 1 million people have visited the area since the release of the video, the Environment Agency of Iceland estimates, leaving deep scars on its vegetation. After remaining closed for all but five weeks this year, it is expected to reopen again this summer only if weather conditions are dry.
Icelanders are reluctant to fault the pop star, who enjoys enormous support on the island. About 12% of Iceland’s entire population — 38,000 people — attended his two concerts in Reykjavík, the capital, a year after the video was released.
Locals underestimated the canyon’s potential as a major attraction because it’s relatively small compared to those formed by the country’s powerful glacier rivers. But unlike others, it is easily accessed and requires less than a kilometer of trekking.
The selfies and drone images have stopped — for now — but more exposure is coming. The latest season of the popular HBO drama “Game of Thrones” features scenes filmed at the canyon. The nearby Skógar waterfall and the Svínafells glacier are also backdrops in the fictional Thrones world of warriors and dragons.
Inga Palsdottir, director of the national tourism agency Visit Iceland, said a single film shot or a viral photograph has often put overlooked places on the map.
The most extreme example, she said, is the Douglas DC-3 US Navy plane that crashed on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur in 1973. The seven Americans on board all survived but the plane wreck was never removed.
“Then someone decided to dance on it and now it’s one of the most popular places in the country,” said Palsdottir.
On a foggy Wednesday morning, ranger Jóhannsdóttir observed fresh footprints on the muddy pathway to the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon, indicating that someone had jumped the fence overnight.
She predicted that more people would trespass that afternoon when she left the roadblock to give a presentation at a community center. She was right. Less than 30 minutes passed before tourists began ignoring the fences and signs.
“We came because of Justin Timberlake,” said Mikhail Samarin, a tourist from Russia, traveling with Nadia Kazachenok and Elena Malteseva, who were quick to correct the artist’s last name to Bieber.
“It was so amazing,” said Malteseva about the Bieber video. “After that, we decided it was necessary to visit this place.”
The three took turns posing for a photograph, standing at the edge of an Icelandic cliff.