As told to Francesca Halikias
I was considered young because I was 37 at the time. I would say that I went through the motions of [my breast cancer diagnosis], but I was a bit in shock. I was a little bit in disbelief. There were times when I kind of thought to myself that this can’t really be true, or maybe you have the wrong person. But I think as a human being, we all have this survival mode kick in, so I was very much focused on just getting through what would be my first encounter with the medical profession because I hadn’t been majorly sick before at all. I think the positive part of it all is just realizing that human beings are pretty resilient. There is definitely a fight-or-flight instinct that kicks in when things like this happen.
The COVID lockdown is something none of us had been through in our lifetimes. I didn’t initially say, ‘Well, this reminds me of my cancer treatment.’ But I think when asked about it at this level, I want to use my experience to help other people who have not been through dark times. I feel like most of us are wired where we have a survival instinct and that just kicks in.
For me I found ways around things. I found new ways of adapting to professional and personal life. I used to swim every day at a swimming pool with a team, and it was a big deal for me to do that, but I found myself swimming in open water instead. During last season I swam a lot in rivers. I was open-minded to new ways of doing things—like doing some classes by Zoom and presentations by Zoom.
I found that what helps is not always focusing on the past and saying ‘Oh, in the past I used to do this and that’ and focusing on the negative. That brings you into a depressed area. I think also realizing and being able to live with uncertainty, which is hard for most people. And realizing that we actually don’t know what the future is going to hold, and no matter how much planning that we do and how much we take care of things, anything can happen.
I think that [living with uncertainty] is a big similarity with people who have been diagnosed with a huge health issue like cancer, because it hits you, and then you’re like, ‘Wow, I eat healthy, I exercise, I did all these things right’ and still sometimes there’s no reasoning behind it.
That was the case with me. There’s no link with any genetics. I was tested for genetics and I don’t have any kind of mutated genes—it doesn’t run in my family that I know of—so it’s just like why did it happen? I don’t know. You have to live with that sometimes, that you don’t know.
I’ve been out of this for officially eight years and you’re never completely out of it, because—just like things people learn in life even with COVID—you don’t know what the details of things are.
I was asked to participate in [Survivorship Today] two years ago, and I was happy to do that because ever since my own journey with this in 2013, I felt strongly that one way to fight back this evil—when I say evil I mean this cancer itself is evil—is to look it in the eye and say, ‘I’m fighting back.’ It’s to share your story in the hopes that other young people, and especially people of color like Chinese-Americans, will say, ‘Hey, that could also potentially happen to me so I need to take this seriously and check this out every year.’ It could save lives.
To not get out these stories and to not share my own story would be a disservice. I didn’t really think about cancer or breast cancer until I was hit by it. I think that to be in your thirties, most people might not think of it and I didn’t think of it. I think the lesson that I took from it is to be your biggest hero and advocate and to not depend on other people. I feel like you have an intuition. And if something doesn’t feel right, I would say go with it.
Cancer is invisible, and there are a lot of survivors out there who might not openly share their stories. Don’t judge people when they’re wearing a mask or when they’re doing certain things. Maybe they’re not comfortable with shaking your hand or hugging you for certain reasons. I think it’s important to really respect everybody’s boundaries, and to understand that there are different spectrums of cancer survivors like myself.
I would also say there are a lot of positive things to learn from cancer survivors because all of us have really lived through it with COVID and continue to live through it. You need to find new ways to adapt and to find a new normal in what is no longer your normal. What is important is to have a survivors group that you can connect with. A group of people who have been through something similar. It could be a balance, people who are depressed and want to share their fears, and other people who can offer some wisdom. I think it is important to seek that out.
I’ve made a lot of good friends through being a survivor and an advocate. I have found a voice in being an advocate as well. I have felt much better because by sharing my story, I have an increase in knowledge and awareness. It also opens the door for people to come to me and ask questions and say, ‘Hey! I saw this episode and what did it feel like?’ I’ve had people ask me, “How did you find this [cancer], what did it feel like?” They’re curious. They want to know what they could do too to participate in their own prevention.
Platforms like Survivorship Today where stories are shared through the eyes of the cancer patients and survivors are great because it can really make a difference with ordinary folks who maybe have not thought about [cancer prevention]. On the other hand, it also is a different perspective to share with medical providers. Medical providers are so focused on treatment and diagnosing, but it’s interesting to see it from another perspective. Even if you have gone through this, it’s always with us, with me.
For myself as a survivor, there’s always this fear that it’s going to come back because it’s not just a fear—it actually happens. You wonder how it could come back, but it comes back and sometimes there are no answers, and that’s what one has to live with sometimes. There is no answer as to why something happens, but if you’re living every day, just don’t take things for granted.