FEATURE | Posted Aug. 27, 2014

Giving back as a cancer survivor

Azadeh Afkhami offers patients understanding, empathy and support

Azadeh Afkhami, copyright UC Regents
After surviving aggressive cancer as a child, Azadeh Afkhami now offers other cancer patients heartfelt messages of perseverance as a volunteer for UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

When Azadeh Afkhami was diagnosed with cancer at age 7, doctors in her native Iran cautioned that her chances of survival were minimal. 

Still her mother brought her halfway around the world to UC Davis, where four years of treatments and surgeries took their toll on her body – and her childhood – but ultimately reversed the disease. 

Now a young adult, Azadeh could choose to turn away from grueling memories of chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries and side effects. Instead, she embraces her past in order to help other young people facing similar challenges. 

As a volunteer for support programs at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, she offers patients access to practical cancer-fighting resources, but also something more profound: a survivor’s understanding, empathy and support.

“When I was a patient I didn’t know anyone going through a similar experience – someone to turn to or lean on who would know firsthand how I felt or what I was going through,” Azadeh said. “When you’re going through such a big challenge in life, it’s not a good feeling, and it can seem like there’s no one who truly understands.”

Trying times

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Azadeh’s cancer experience involved wave after wave of intimidating challenges. After arriving in America, she spent the majority of her first two years in or around the hospital receiving treatment for the cancer in her right leg and left arm – all while learning English along the way. After a year of chemotherapy and radiation, surgeons operated to replace bone in the affected limbs with metal rods. 

Several months later, she began experiencing severe headaches and double vision. The cancer, now classified as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, had returned and spread to her head and spine. More chemotherapy and radiation followed, along with surgeries to lengthen the rods in her growing limbs.

During the times Azadeh was able to attend school, she was often confined to a post-op wheelchair or otherwise sidelined by the effects of her treatments.

“It made my body and immune system very weak so I couldn’t be around other people or kids a lot, or spend time outside,” she said. “Just a small common cold sent me right back into the hospital with a high fever for several days.”

“Once we let fear overcome us, it’s our biggest downfall. The most important thing is to have hope and faith. That’s what helped me through.”
– Azadeh Afkhami

Azadeh was finally, and joyously, declared cancer-free at age 11. But a month later, she noticed a red bump on the leg that had been operated on so many times. Tests showed it was an infection, and it ultimately took her limb.  

If being identified in school as “the girl who had cancer” had been difficult, adolescence after amputation proved even tougher. While she continued to receive tremendous support and mentorship from her mother, Azadeh ultimately realized that it was up to herself alone to move forward again towards her goals. 

“I was angry at everything and (naturally) asking ‘Why me?’ ” Azadeh said. “Eventually, I had to tell myself that nothing was going to change.

"I could either sit in a corner and feel sorry for myself, or continue with my life.”

Source of strength

Azadeh Afkhami and Nadia Ono, copyright UC Regents
Azadeh Afkhami stresses hope and faith when assisting other cancer patients. Breast cancer survivor Nadia Ono says peer support was a valuable part of her treatment experience.

Azadeh was always interested in biology and medicine, and vowed during treatment to return and give back directly to others with cancer. Now in her twenties and a UC Davis volunteer, she offers cancer patients heartfelt messages of perseverance.

Azadeh currently helps to staff a resource room at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and also serves on the center’s Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Advisory Board, which creates education and support programs for the unique needs of young patients.

By listening to others and relating about their experiences, she hopes to help them find strength and perspective that will complement the cancer-fighting powers of a proton beam or infusion pump.

“One thing I share with patients is that we tend to be our own biggest obstacles,” Azadeh said. “Once we let fear overcome us, it’s our biggest downfall. The most important thing is to have hope and faith. That’s what helped me through.

“No matter how hard it is to keep positive sometimes, don’t let the negative feelings overpower you and don’t dwell on them. Instead, focus on the present moment and enjoy the simple gift of living.”

Hope and love

Learn more

To learn more about cancer care and support at NIH-designated UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, visit cancer.ucdavis.edu.

Biology graduate student Nadia Ono was grateful for the support she received during her own breast cancer treatment at UC Davis.

Nadia, now 29, said a cancer mentor or “peer navigator” helped her to remain calm during the initial wait for treatment and assisted in honing her expectations and advocacy skills. The mentor relationship also allowed Nadia to “be real” about her fears and helped her to maintain positivity, she said.

“(Support) is how you deal with the incredible stress of cancer, and the sudden realization that life is so much more fleeting and unpredictable than we all like to think it is,” Nadia said. “We all need hope and love, and the support of others supplies that.

“It takes a village to support a cancer survivor, in my opinion, and that is so evident when I look back on my journey.”