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.