Refugee Zumba instructor dances her way into remission

May 13, 2017 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Hadeel Haider has lost enough sleep in the past decade.

The Iraqi refugee had nightmares in her native country when it was ravaged by war. She heard explosions 24 hours a day. Her husband received death threats, and they walked their children to school so they wouldn’t be kidnapped.

In her new Omaha home, she tossed and turned after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Now in remission and settled into life in America, she stays awake imagining choreography to the upbeat Latin tunes playing in her head.


While recovering from chemotherapy treatments, Haider, 48, discovered Zumba. The dance fitness classes set to Latin music are more than exercise to her. Zumba has become a rewarding way to connect with others, and it helped her transition from a cancer patient to survivor. Now Haider is a certified instructor.

“When I teach a class, I feel like I’m on top of the world. American people following a refugee from Iraq teaching them dancing — it was something out of my wildest dream,” Haider told the Omaha World-Herald ( ).

Haider moved to Omaha in 2009. It took nearly three years for her to adapt to life in the U.S. She had to learn English and adjust to a new culture. She balanced working 12 hours a day at two jobs.

And the family would soon encounter health problems, first with her 18-year-old son. He developed a bump on his head that his parents worried would be cancer. After several tests, doctors determined it was benign.

While dealing with that, Haider put herself second. For months, she pushed aside her own health problem: an itching and swelling in her groin.

At the urging of her husband, Haider met with doctors at the Nebraska Medical Center. In 2012, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphomas are a type of blood cancer that occurs when white blood cells behave abnormally. Hodgkin lymphoma is a more treatable form.

“We were waiting, crying and praying,” Haider said. “It was mixed feelings because I was very ill and very sad. But at least it was Hodgkin.”

Haider required six months of chemotherapy treatments. After three months, doctors wanted to give her a stronger dosage.

“I was devastated all over, just like the first day,” Haider said. “The doctor said, ‘It’s treated, but not cured. I want you to be cured.’”

By the time Haider started the second round, her hair was long gone. Her skin was dark and dry. Her mouth was full of sores.

She also started feeling extreme pain in her muscles, joints and bones. She frequently felt weak and passed out, requiring blood transfusions.

Dealing with her diagnosis was challenging, especially after being uprooted from her home in Iraq.

“We were still new. I’m still learning,” Haider said. “It was tough, but at the same time, when we heard that this is the right place for treating lymphoma, we were also relieved.”


By November, Haider was done with treatments and declared free of cancer. For nearly two months after treatment she attempted to regain her strength. But she still struggled to feel like herself.

Walking across the room felt taxing. Bending over to pick up something from the floor made her feel like she was 90.

Haider packed on about 35 extra pounds during her treatments. Some patients gain weight during treatments and others lose weight, said Dr. James Armitage, who treated Haider.

Exercise is particularly helpful to cancer patients and survivors, Armitage said. Studies show cancer patients who exercise have a better quality of life, in addition to its more well-known benefits, according to the American Cancer Society.

Maintaining a healthy weight, eating right and being physically active may help reduce the risk of a second cancer as well as chronic diseases, according to the organization.

The cancer society recommends that survivors take part in regular physical activity, return to daily activities as soon as possible after diagnosis, exercise 150 minutes a week and include strength training exercises twice a week.

A friend encouraged Haider to try the Livestrong at the YMCA program. The 12-week exercise program is designed to help cancer survivors reclaim their health by building muscle and strength, increasing flexibility and endurance, as well as improving confidence and self-esteem.

The program isn’t designed as a support group, but participants often use it as one, said Amy Roux, project manager for the program.

Haider and her group members asked questions such as how to deal with muscle cramps, whether to call themselves survivors or how to receive a compliment on a wig.

“It really helped me because we are sharing the same symptoms, the same side effects, the same feelings,” Haider said.

The goal of the program is for participants to find a type of exercise they enjoy and will stick with. For Haider, it was Zumba.

Haider started taking classes about a month after the Live?strong program ended. She attended classes three to four days a week. She worked her way from the back of class to the front about six weeks later. Eventually, she realized she could lead class.

By the time Zumba training rolled around, Haider had lost some of the weight she gained during chemo, and her hair was growing back. After she earned her certification, Haider landed a class as an instructor at the YMCA in Valley and two classes at the Maple Street YMCA, 7520 Maple St.

Helen Bartee has been attending Haider’s Zumba classes at the Maple Street location for about two years. Haider’s fun-loving attitude keeps Bartee and other attendees coming back.

Bartee was one of six participants in a class on a recent Thursday. They faced a mirror-lined wall and watched as Haider went through the fast-paced routines, tapping her toes, clapping her hands and waving her arms above her head.

“She breaks it down and keeps throwing new things at us,” Bartee said. “She’s just so personable.”

Organizers of YMCA programs and class members have been struck by Haider’s energy and her passion to connect with others. Her resilience to overcome cancer and channel her enthusiasm into Zumba has been inspiring, they said.

“People discover they really like yoga or Zumba or water aerobics. But for her to take it to that next level, that’s very inspiring,” Roux said. “To really have a success story like hers, it’s heartwarming.”