I have a small but growing circle of new friends. Friends are important especially in rough times. I have nearly 1,000 on Facebook, 100 on Twitter, not to mention the dozens of friends whom I travel, swim and work with on both continents. But I have a new circle of friends of late – ladies who are fellow breast cancer conquerors.
We share a common language and the experience of being thrown on a similar roller-coaster ride.
The ladies come from all backgrounds, all ages, each with their own personal stories. Some newly minted survivors have just conquered chemo, radiation or both, while others are more seasoned and are five or 10 years out of the journey. Some have been very vocal about their experience, and have taken the new kids like myself under their wing.
How do I meet these ladies? Mostly by reaching out. On Facebook I am an avid member of Little Pink Houses of Hope , Beyond the Pink Moon , Breast Cancer Survivors Group and Stupid Cancer , the non-profit organisation for the young adult (18-39) cancer crowd.
I’ve also sought out women here in Hong Kong and used treatment at a platform to connect. I rang up the social worker at the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation and said: “I’m scared of going to treatment alone. Are there any women who can come with me?”
Breast cancer has made me a lot more open to exposing myself in a good way.
The old me would not have been readily open to connecting with strangers. In the past I would have remained stoic and faked a smile in whatever situation I found myself in. The ego would have been at the forefront of things. But a new me is emerging as if from a cocoon. Outside daily treatments, I’ve made amazing friends, some are involved in the fight against breast cancer, others are survivors who are devoted to helping others.
The social worker connects me with Cindy (whose name was changed for privacy), who shares the Cliff Notes version of her story over the phone before we meet. She was 38 when diagnosed, no family history, she had stage three cancer, and most of her lymph nodes were removed. She also had the entire works (mastectomy, chemo and radiation). My treatment somehow sounds like a breeze in comparison.
She promises to accompany me to round six of the treatment.
”Do not worry; everything will be fine,” she says, speaking calmly and softly. “I will be there when you go in and when you come out.”
Cindy is a spirited slip of a woman, petite, pretty, feminine. Wearing a daisy-coloured lace dress, she looks like a Good Housekeeping housewife from the 1950s. She looks pretty good and has an inner glow that lights up her face.
After the treatment, we find a cha chaan teng and chat over wonton noodles and milk tea. I find it a little hard to believe that less than three hours ago we were complete strangers, and now she was doing an emotional striptease in the hopes it would lift my spirits.
”I wanted you to see me in person,” she says. “I was someone with stage three cancer, lost my breast, my hair, and I had every side effect you can think of from the chemo, but I survived it and look at me now. Do I look any different than other women?” She didn’t. She looked really good.
She had come to accompany me as proof that breast cancer isn’t a sentence, but rather an opportunity. She shared her story and talked about her old self, and oddly enough she sounded like me – overly busy, a car running on eight cylinders, she talked fast, ate fast, worked fast, she thought herself invincible, and then she got sick and everything changed.
”I feel like I was given a second chance at life. If God were to give you a second chance at life, would you want to live your old life again?”
I was deep in thought now, perhaps a little zoned out from the treatment, but thinking that there were certainly perks to living in the fast lane, but in the end little reward.
”You are young. Sure, having cancer is not a happy thing, but we are lucky in that we have gotten a wake-up call to what really matters,” she says.
She has a loving family, husband and good friends, and the business that she and her husband run is still going.
“I once thought that if I worked harder and faster the business would be even better, but what do you have if you don’t have your health? You have nothing. It’s like the story of the rabbit and the hare. If I work myself into a grave, what good am I? If I pace myself, things can run for a long time.”
August would mark the five-year anniversary of her treatment. She has many friends around her age, and she observes the worries and complaints of those who have been seemingly blessed with good health and fortune. Good health and fortune does not bring happiness, she said.
The girlfriends whine about crows’ feet and extra chin, talk about doing Botox and tummy tucks, and she sits back and smiles and listens to them not saying anything.
”I focus on staying healthy, on eating healthy, on staying positive. Inner beauty is priceless,” she says.
Cindy sounds like a saint and I wonder if I will ever adopt this new attitude and whether I will ever be that optimistic. Right now I still swing back and forth between good days and bad, and sometimes collapse in an emotional funk.
”That’s normal to ask why me, to be envious of others sometimes. It has taken me five years,” she said, noting that changing one’s personality is an evolution.
”People with good health have their worries, and their own unhappiness, and I am happy that I am alive. Disease isn’t just that of body but also of mind. Right now I am happy, I try to help others and not focus on whether it will return.”
We finished our tea and she said: “People always say, ‘thank you for all of your help, for sharing your story with me,’ but I learn from every person I meet too. I’ve learned from you and I hear that you want to change.
“You are lucky, don’t you know? You have stage 0 cancer, you still have your breast, you didn’t have to go through chemo, and you have a second chance, it’s up to you. It is a matter of perspective.”
Outside, the summer humidity was strong, the crowds in Central growing as rush hour neared. Nothing had changed and yet something had changed – a perspective on life and people. Indeed there were some things we could not change, but we could turn a negative into a positive.
I felt sunny despite the oncoming rain clouds. Cindy was a star, someone to aspire to. After a marathon day of treatment and meeting a new friend, I had time to reflect. I would never say that cancer was a blessing, but blessings came out of it. Certainly the disease has led me to better understand myself and others, and to meet some extraordinary women like Cindy.