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People Profile: Mary Issa Zwald

Network - Fall 2008

By Nada El-Sayed

When Mary Issa Zwald was diagnosed with breast cancer, she never spent time asking, “Why me?” Instead, she prepared herself for the battle ahead, waiting for what she calls the “black cloud” to pass. Along the way she has continued to encourage and support other women around the globe.

After her diagnosis, Zwald was referred to Nuhad Ibrahim, M.D., professor in the Department of Breast Medical Oncology at M. D. Anderson, for her treatment. Now a nine-year survivor, she feels very lucky for her treatment and the support of Ibrahim, her family and friends. 

“Breast cancer is a fact of life. It threatens a lot of women, and no one is spared from its wrath,” Zwald says. “I never questioned why I got breast cancer, but instead always said, ‘Why not, since so many women are being diagnosed each year.’”

Her strength and outlook on life have carried her through. “I accepted the treatment, took care of myself and laughed at the whole ordeal. Everything in life happens for a good reason, even cancer, and I am a stronger person from it.”

Creating global awareness

An Arab-American of Lebanese decent, Zwald understands the cultural differences that affect the way some women deal with breast cancer in the Middle East compared to the West.

“It’s taboo to speak openly about one’s health, especially in regard to breast cancer,” she says.

However, she has been open about her own diagnosis and treatment. “I always interact with women patients during my checkup visits at M. D. Anderson. I try to encourage whoever I come in contact with. I tell them that breast cancer is like a black cloud that will soon pass.”

At Ibrahim’s recommendation, Zwald was asked to be part of a short segment promoting breast cancer awareness on the international Arab television station, Al-Arabiya. The segment, which also included First Lady Laura Bush, was broadcast around the globe.

Speaking in Arabic, Zwald encouraged women to face their breast cancer diagnosis bravely and find support in their families and loved ones.

“This was one of the proudest moments in my life,” she says, “to be able to help other women in the Middle East face this chapter in their lives with courage.”

The interview, which was done at M. D. Anderson, was something she didn’t prepare for.

“Everything came straight from my heart,” she says. “I lived the story I was telling.”

A few weeks after the interview, she heard about the segment’s high ranking and that it was well received in the Arab world on multiple television stations.

“It was a moving experience that I will never forget,” she says.

Life after breast cancer

Today, Zwald volunteers her time with the Cancer League and continues to help fundraising efforts for cancer causes. She also designs pieces of jewelry, which are donated to many silent auctions to raise funds for cancer awareness and research.

“Cancer is not the end of the world. It can happen to anyone,” she says. “Optimism and faith were both major parts of my treatment, so I live each day and hope for the best.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center