Now I'm thinking like a survivor
The 14-hour marathon plane journey from Hong Kong to New York gave me a lot of time to think.
In between dining on airline cuisine and watching old sitcoms, I let my mind wander. In my imaginary rearview mirror I saw my aunt, the breast surgeon, the packed waiting room, and inevitably the long queue of women awaiting diagnosis or treatment. I felt the butterflies in my stomach that one only gets when life is on the line. I became almost nostalgic about the minibus ride to Queen Mary hospital, and those post-treatment meals with my aunt and friends. But would I rather return to normalcy or Cancerland? Of course, I would choose normalcy.
In the months following the rounds of radiation, I’ve returned to the pool, first in the slow lane and then the fast lane. I unconsciously wanted to send my fellow swimmers the message that nothing had changed, when in fact everything has. I’ve lost seconds from my time and I occasionally have to stop, but at the back of my mind there is that voice, “Hey at least I am in the pool,” as if that wasn’t even supposed to happen.
Sitting on the long flight, which I used to whine about - I used to jokingly call it the “forever flight” - I bite my tongue. “I am lucky that I am on this flight,” I say to myself. I am grateful that I’m healthy enough to get on the airplane and fly. I held my farewell party in Hong Kong with good friends and toasted everyone to good health and happiness over a birthday cake rather than one that read “Bon Voyage”.
“Every day is a birthday and a new beginning,” I tell a friend, who chuckles, perhaps not understanding the underlying message.
Before I left Hong Kong I sent farewell emails and texts to the ladies that I met on this journey, including the woman who started chemo the day I finished radiation. I wonder what happened to those that I didn’t hear back from. I hope that they resurface in even better health than before. I hope that they survive and thrive.
I am increasingly living with the reality that the disease isn’t completely gone. Before I leave my grandmother rattles off a list of things that I should avoid – chicken, pork, spinach, anything with milk. Even at the age of 91 she knows that there is a five-year survival milestone for cancer survivors. I need to find a new oncologist for follow-up appointments every three to six months. I will still have to go through the nerve-wracking reality of sitting through exams and waiting for results. I reluctantly go through the self-examinations after I take a shower, always holding my breath, resigned.
I keep thinking back to what the breast surgeon told me and lessons from my latest journey. There are no guarantees in life, so I remind myself to try not to hold grudges, live every day as if it is the last, and laugh more even against the backdrop of uncertainty.
A friend sent over a link the other day, a story about a runner who was in the Boston Marathon, and fortunately not caught in the bombing. He recently ran an ultra marathon of 163 miles to raise money for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and cancer survivors.
I want to do something and make a difference too. I want to swim a race in memory of women who have lost their lives to cancer. I want to run a race and dedicate it to breast cancer survivors. Soon after returning to my folk’s home in Gotham, New York, I received a cold call from a breast cancer non-profit charity asking for a donation. I demurred, asking the caller: “Can you email me the information first?”
“Why didn’t I simply donate?” I asked myself later, feeling guilty. In a funny way, I might not want to be reminded that I am a survivor.
And there is that word again, survivor. I question whether I can even call myself a survivor if I am so far from that five-year mark. I want to, but deep down I know that I’m not really free, not just yet.
And yet upon my return, a woman – herself a breast cancer survivor – reached out to me. She asked me if I wanted to be matched with a Survivor from a support programme called SurvivorLink. Yes I’d like that, I said, not giving it a second thought.