Getting better gave me a whole new love for life
Downtown Radio’s Munier Abdulla tells Audrey Watson how his remarkable battle with cancer has made him stronger
Appearances can certainly be deceptive and anyone meeting Downtown Radio journalist Munier Abdulla for the first time would find it hard to believe that the healthy-looking 29-year-old recently fought a gruelling battle with cancer.
Although he is now well and back at work, the illness has left its mark and next week Munier, who has been with the station for almost seven years, will speak about his experience during a special Beyond Cancer event funded by Macmillan Cancer Support, at Corr's Corner Hotel, Newtownabbey.
Says Munier: “Beyond Cancer will give sufferers and carers the chance to share their experience with a view to improving future cancer care. I really wanted to get involved to raise awareness and also to highlight the long-term effect that the disease and its treatment can have on a person's confidence, both personally and professionally.
“The period since my treatment finished has been the most traumatic time in my entire life — trying to rebuild confidence in terms of relationships and work, trying to prove to yourself and to your colleagues that you are good at what you do and are back to your best... and of course trying to rebuild your body.
“Before I became ill, I was a fanatical marathon runner and was super-fit, but I've never got that killer fitness back again. That might not seem like a big deal to most people, but running was a big part of my life. You have to come to terms with it and accept things are never going to be the same.
“When I was going through chemotherapy, I was offered and accepted counselling from a clinical psychologist and it's been a great help. Talking about cancer and being allowed to talk openly about cancer is very important.”
London-born Munier was only 27 when in June 2007 he was told he had stage 2b Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Initially dismissed by doctors when he first started noticing that things weren't right, it took almost eight months before the disease was diagnosed.
“I was acutely aware that something was very wrong,” recalls Munier. “On a trip to Egypt with friends in 2006, I felt terribly lethargic and a small cut on my finger took a very long time to heal.
“I used to run marathons in under four hours, but I was so weak I was struggling to even finish. I had all the classic symptoms of Hodgkin’s disease, but it was only after I went to see a private consultant that I got a diagnosis.”
Although he admits to being initially terrified, Munier soon became determined to beat the illness.
“After I was told I had cancer, I went out to my car and had a good cry, but that was the last time I got emotional. I decided that I was going to fight this thing every way that I could.”
His fight included a year of punishing chemotherapy treatment consisting of fortnightly sessions and daily doses of various drugs.
“It was incredibly tough to endure,” recalls Munier. “And there were a lot of side effects including nausea, vomiting and weight-gain due to the steroids I had to take to counteract the effects of chemo.
“But it's amazing how you just get used to and accept the side effects because after the first dose, you know what's coming.
“One of the hardest things to deal with was the loss of confidence and the loss of the desire to interact and be among people.
“By far the worst part was the not-knowing — not knowing whether the treatment was going to work and whether I would survive.
“There are four stages of the disease and I knew at 2b, I was 50% of the way to being terminal.”
Munier describes the medical treatment and care he received from the staff of Laurel House Cancer Unit at Antrim Area Hospital as “fantastic” and adds: “I know I'm very lucky. I was the youngest person in the clinic by a good 20 or 30 years and I think my relative youth and high level of fitness helped my recovery. An older or less fit person might have found it much more difficult.”
An only child, Murnier was born and spent his early years in west London. He came to live in Ballymena aged 11, after his parents' marriage broke up and his mum, Kate, who is originally from Northern Ireland, returned to the province.
“My mum is a nurse and my dad, Samir, comes from Egypt,” he reveals. “Dad works as a butler to the rich and famous and spends six months a year travelling round the world working in exotic locations. I got to see some great places when I was younger.”
After attending St Patrick's College in Ballymena, Munier returned to England and obtained a degree in media and English at the University of East London and a Masters in broadcast journalism at City University London. On finishing his studies, he spent time working at Sky Sports, FourFourTwo football magazine and various newspapers and TV stations, before returning to Northern Ireland to be near his mum, to whom he is very close.
“I still live in Ballymena and because mum is from the province there was a big support network of family and friends who all rallied round and took me to hospital for chemo and helped me at home.
“My first chemo session was horrific and resulted in five days of chronic vomiting. My mum was with me for that, but although she's a nurse and had witnessed that sort of thing before, she found the fact that it was her own son going through it very hard to take.”
Despite having suffered a life-threatening illness, Munier is extremely positive and can now look back on some of the side effects he endured with an admirable degree of humour: “Because of the steroids, I grew the biggest pair of man boobs ever,” he jokes. But he admits that the thought of cancer returning does sometimes cause him to worry.
“It's not always on my mind,” he says. “But when I go back for check-ups and see other people who are much worse than me, it makes me aware that it could come back. But I've been told that there's a very good chance that it won't.”
As well as family and friends, Munier's workmates also provided great support.
“My colleagues at Downtown were wonderful,” he says. “Especially Karen and Bob, my editor and deputy editor. At the same time as I was ill, another colleague, presenter Eddie West, was also suffering and being treated for cancer and all the DTR staff started raising money for charity and doing anything they could to help and show support for the two of us. They're a wonderful bunch.
“Cancer has changed my outlook on life totally. I'll never be the person I was before. It has made me much more altruistic and determined to help others who are going through something similar.
“However, unlike a lot of people who have undergone a similar experience, I haven't become more spiritual. My mum is a Christian, dad is a Muslim and mum would say ‘thank God he survived', but I believe it had nothing to do with God — if I hadn't received medical treatment, I would be in a box and that's a fact. I know I'm a very lucky guy.”
Beyond Cancer takes place this Tuesday at Corr's Corner Hotel, Newtownabbey. The free event is funded by Macmillan Cancer Support and organised by NI Cancer Network, Cancer Centre Patient and Client Councils for NI and Queen's University. To reserve a place, tel: 2586 3950 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org