Meet Alwiya Ahmed: A Doctor Who Is Battling Stage 4 Lung Cancer

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Alwiya Ahmed was out for a run when the vision in her left eye narrowed and she began seeing zig-zag lines. A few minutes later, the 30-year-old’s vision returned and everything was normal. Then about a week later, she realised that she was losing some sight in her left eye. She took herself to the emergency department at the hospital where she was supposed to sit for her medical residency interview the next day. There, a day before her interview, she was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Ahmed says, “At the moment I received my diagnosis, I had two choices: live while I can or give up. I choose the former.” And today, Ahmed is an internal medicine resident at the University of Washington Medicine in Seattle, USA. The disease still persists, but her selfless determination to cure others in the world drives her forward everyday.

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“Cancer was far from my mind”

When the first signs of peripheral vision loss occurred in October 2019, Ahmed thought she had multiple sclerosis, because for “women in their late 20s and early 30s, painless vision loss means some autoimmune disease.” She says, “Cancer was far from my mind, especially lung cancer.”

“I am a young, healthy, avid runner, and never-smoker,” Ahmed says. At medical school, she tells me, she “was one of the students who managed to stay active, workout, and eat healthily. I planned to run a marathon during my fourth year. I also wanted to go abroad and work with Doctors Without Borders… I was extremely focused on succeeding and getting through medical school.”

As a doctor, Ahmed now hopes to raise more awareness about lung cancer, and dispel the misconceptions around it. She says people must know that “not all patients who get diagnosed with lung cancer are smokers or older. Young people can get lung cancer too.”

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“Didn’t Know If I Would Live To See Graduation”

Ahmed opines that the interesting thing about cancer is that when the word ‘cancer’ is spoken, you forget everything else. And with enough reason. Cancer is that bane of existence human society is still learning to grapple with.

She reveals that she “did not know if I had a chance of surviving past one year.” When interviewers asked her where she would see herself in the future, she didn’t know the answer. “I did not even know if I would see graduation, let alone the next 15 years,” she says. The momentous events in her life – graduation day, moving to a new city – they became “reminders of a future that I was unsure would actually materialise for me,” Ahmed recalls.

She began internalising the anxieties, “looking for ways to confirm her worst fears,” she says. To date, that remains the hardest part of being in a profession where you’re surrounded by disease all day. She explains, “Living with cancer while working in medicine… It’s really difficult to not constantly imagine yourself in the position of your patients.” It’s a tough battle, but one she is trying her best to learn to fight everyday.

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“Talking About Things Lessens The Power It Has On Us”

Ever since Ahmed was diagnosed with lung cancer, she lost her direction in life more times than she could count. But perceptively, she maintained, “I cannot control the cards that the universe deals, but I can control how I respond to it.” And so she responded to it like a fighter.

Through these 10 months, family, friends, her fiancé, podcasts, books, and running have helped her soldier on despite cancer. She attributes her positivity to “Laughter, finding a moment to laugh in the hardest moments. Remembering who I was when cancer was not part of my life.” However, the thing that has helped her the most, she says, is talking about her experience. She has allowed herself to “feel all the emotions that come with a terminal illness” because she believes that “talking about things lessens the power it has on us.”

The things that keep Ahmed motivated now are her patients. She says it’s a privilege, because “as physicians, we are in such a unique position to be present in someone’s most vulnerable moment in their life.” Her ultimate goal now is to become a medical oncologist and treat patients battling cancer.