Credited with introducing salsa dancing and a flavour of Latin America to Oman, Felix Meza tells Kate Ginn about his battle with cancer.
There are times when you meet someone and it turns out to be nothing like you expected. This is what happened with Felix Meza.
One of Felix’s friends had suggested he would make a good interview, saying he was instrumental in introducing salsa dance to Muscat.
We meet at a coffee shop in Shatti overlooking the beach. Dressed all in black and with a muscular physique, Felix certainly looks like a man who knows his way around the dance floor.
It’s not surprising that he’s good at salsa. After all, he’s from Venezuela.
“We all dance over there, it’s just something you grow up with. It’s part of the culture,” says Felix.
Felix moved to Oman when he was 20 with his parents.
It was difficult. He didn’t speak a word of English, didn’t know a soul and had to adapt to a new culture at a time when there was very few Latin American families living here.
While studying English and then going to Caledonian College of Engineering, he did what came naturally to him: he began teaching a salsa class at a gym in one of the malls, then a hotel and started Latino nights at a club.
“There was nothing like it here and it really made a good impact. All the classes were booked. Now it has become something big.
“My students are now better than me and many are Arabs. It’s a passion for them and they are really good.
“We have a lot of similarities in the way that we are thinking [Arabs and Latin Americans]. We believe that God is number one, then family and then friends. These are our priorities.”
So far, our chat was going just as I expected. Until Felix suddenly pauses and says very quietly: “In my last year of university, I got very sick, I got Hodgkin Lymphoma, the cancer.”
He says it very matter of fact but it’s still a shock, as I wasn’t expecting that.
Hodgkin Lymphoma develops in the lymphatic system and affects the white blood cells, but is known as one of the more treatable of cancers with a good survival rate.
Still, for a young man of 24 it must have been devastating.
Treatment started at the Royal Hospital in Muscat with 26 chemotherapy cycles and 16 radiations.
“It was difficult,” he says. “After the chemo, I could not eat anything for a week, just drinking fluids. Then I had one week when I could eat normally and try to compensate for the weight loss, before I had to go back for the next cycle.
“For my mother, the first month was very difficult for her. We were living in the same house, her room was by my room, and we would communicate through emails.”
To help his recovery, Felix also changed his lifestyle; he stopped bodybuilding (and salsa) and took up golf.
When he talks about his illness, Felix is very composed, recounting the terrible time he went through without emotion.
After a year and a half, the treatment had worked. But three months later, the disease came back.
The doctors told him that he needed a bone marrow transplant.
“I stopped everything and I went to Venezuela to do the treatment. It was supposed to be four or five months but it took a year.
“First, I needed to do more chemotherapies to remove the disease again. The last chemotherapy, I got an infection in my mouth, tongue and throat, stomach and kidneys. In 10 days, I lost more than 10kg.”
His own stem cells were removed and frozen.
Before the transplant, he underwent chemotherapy for a week, day and night, for 24 hours, before the stem cells were put back in his blood. The aim is for the cells to help the bone marrow make healthy cells again.
“Six months after the transplant, I was afraid to go out,” says Felix. ‘I didn’t want to talk to people, I didn’t want to eat anything outside, I was in my room. I was not able to touch anyone. Maybe the doctor said I was OK but I was afraid.”
The support of good friends and loved ones helped him to overcome his fears and he was able to return to Muscat.
Two months later, during an evaluation, doctors discovered that the Hodgkin Lymphoma was back again.
He needed another bone marrow transplant but this time, it had to be from a donor. His family was tested and the only one compatible was his younger sister, who was only 12 or
13 at the time. Treatment would begin at an institute in Italy. Before then, he would travel to India for another test.
“During that time, my mother never accepted what happened to me,” says Felix. “She refused to accept the idea that I might die.
“One day before I go to India, I talk to my mother and I said, ‘It is about time for you to let me go’ and she said, ‘Yes son, if it is the will of God. I will not say any more.” And she let me go.”
In India, however, the test revealed no trace of the disease. A second test in January could not find anything either.
“The doctors could not explain it,” says Felix. “Since then, I have been clean. I believe it is down to God.”
A few months later, he got a job in Oman working in the oil fields. Two years ago, he started exercising again.
“I feel healthy. Eight years have passed now and I have a normal life,” says Felix, now 34.
He’s even started bodybuilding again.
Does he worry the cancer will come back? “Always,” he says. “The doctors say that I don’t need to do tests or check-ups any more but I keep going to the hospital.”
You cannot help but be moved by his story, the strength that he showed.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Before this happened, I can say that my life was idyllic, I had a good job, money but I was feeling empty.
“I am a better person for it. I have become humanitarian. I see life in a different way. I was young, selfish and arrogant before.
“I am content with my life and the emptiness has gone.
“I touched the bottom and I feel that I couldn’t go any lower.
“I live life in the now. In the past I had a lot of plans and goals and my world just collapsed.
“I have a second chance and I do my best today, I don’t wait for tomorrow.”
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