Profile: Maha Kalaji
"Good Morning, Dr. I Have Cancer."
These were Maha Kalaji's first words to a family friend physician the morning after she found a lump in her breast during a self-exam. A mammogram later, she was flying from her home in Amman, Jordan, to the United Kingdom, where she was raised, to consult with physicians. One of those physicians recommended The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for treatment.
With the help of two of her brothers who lived in Houston; she was at MD Anderson within a week. That was in 1993.
"I never associated having cancer with death," Kalaji explains. "I consider myself lucky. Cancer has changed my life, it's made me more realistic and more appreciative. Every day I wake up and am grateful for so many things."
Following chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation therapy for her breast cancer, MD Anderson physicians found cancer in her liver in 1999. Since then, Kalaji has alternated between hormone therapy and chemotherapy to combat the liver cancer. That is until 2009, when surgeons removed 60% of her liver in the hope that it would eliminate the cancer. It did not, and within four months the cancer had returned.
Kalaji continues to visit MD Anderson every three months for check-ups and expects to continue her alternating hormone therapy and chemotherapy for the foreseeable future.
But cancer is only a small piece of Kalaji's story. She continues to reside in Amman, where she is the protocol officer for the United States Embassy.
Sharing her journey
In addition to her role with the embassy, Kalaji has taken on the mantle of educator, most notably through the recent release of her book, "Journey of Confrontation." Currently the book is available in Arabic, with an English version slated for release some time this summer. One of her main objectives with the book is informing patients in the Middle East about what it is like to have cancer.
"I met women who were receiving chemotherapy at King Hussein Cancer Center who did not know why they were there, because their families did not tell them," Kalaji recounts. "I think knowing what is going to happen to you ... what the side effects of chemotherapy are and how it is going to affect you, is important."
Kalaji's book is a sort of chronicle of what it's like to be a cancer patient, taking the reader step by step through procedures and stages of treatment. MD Anderson plays a role in the book and in how Kalaji approaches her cancer. As does the fact that MD Anderson and King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman, which acts as her second hospital, are sister institutions -- a result of initiatives by MD Anderson's Global Academic Programs in the Center for Global Oncology.
"It's such a wonderful thing that MD Anderson and KHCC are sister institutions. Both my doctors see eye to eye and they negotiate my treatment before it takes place." An additional partnership Kalaji highlights as important is the International Center and representatives like Eliane Sayeghe, who visited Jordan for Kalaji's book launch and has been her liaison at MD Anderson for many years.
"I remember when I found out MD Anderson had an International Office. I remember thinking that I was in the right place," Kalaji recalls. "They just make life so easy for the patient. Whether I am having trouble with my schedule or contacting a nurse, they are available 24 hours a day to help."
Ultimately, Kalaji, who lost both parents to cancer, hopes her experience will help others understand cancer and the personal changes that occur with the disease. With her book already sold out in Jordan and a second printing ordered, she believes she is reaching people -- patients and non-patients alike. In the meantime, she remains an MD Anderson patient.
"MD Anderson gave me the confidence to write this book. The personal relationship I have with my doctor, the fact that MD Anderson encourages patients to participate in their treatment, that they are always presenting options, these things all gave me the confidence to write the book," Kalaji explains. "At MD Anderson, I don't feel like I am a number."
All proceeds from her book will benefit the King Hussein Cancer Center.
Audience at Maha's book signing. Eliane and Jordanian dignitaries, including Her Royal Highness, Jordan's Princess Dina Mired, Director General of King Hussein Cancer Center.