Thanks to cancer, I realized that I needed to come back to my home country of Portugal and finally start living the life I wanted. After a lifetime in the United States, I first heard about COVID-19 from my many friends in Italy. One friend is a doctor and has been on the frontline, right in Bergamo. Like others, he got infected and he spread the word about how easy it is to catch the virus.
Luckily, I now live in a gorgeous farm in a valley, just 30 minutes from Lisbon, with my daughters Rita and Claudia. My parents bought this property 30 years ago. I was blessed to have inherited part of it. It is within the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park which is Unesco World Heritage centre. Our home is in a permaculture setting of organic and regenerative farming. Our hope is to grow our community, to be able to live mostly off the land, to help the surrounding areas, and to create a holistic haven with a focus for breast cancer survivors. We were on our way to becoming self sufficient and COVID-19 sped up the process. Thanks to the farm community along with other local volunteers, we have been able to work the land, creating new projects like a wood oven for pizzas and bread making. We now have an even bigger sense of community living.
I have experienced cancer twice. My first time was almost six years ago and I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer months after moving to South Carolina. The second time was almost two years ago. I was diagnosed with lung cancer.
No better person than a survivor can understand what is going through our minds. No matter the time or day, we are here for each other.
These experiences have helped me uniquely deal with COVID-19.
I have noticed that us—the survivors and thrivers—have an advantage compared to the general public. We have dealt with the unknown, with death, with scary moments, with loss of body parts, with seeing many of our friends gone too soon. Those experiences teach us that nothing is given in life and that a sense of community, sisterhood and helping one another is more important than anything else. When we go through cancer, the sisterhood of other survivors is amazingly important, especially to the newbies, as their experiences will help us navigate through our own journeys. And though no two cancer journeys are alike, hearing from others and knowing they are there for us, is magical. No better person than a survivor can understand what is going through our minds. No matter the time or day, we are here for each other.
We also learn to better take care of ourselves—physically, mentally and spiritually. Cancer teaches us to live in fear, yet at the same time, it tells us to enjoy every second that life grants us. After breast cancer, my new motto in life became “create daily memories.” Cancer totally woke me up to live life, to enjoy it, for we never know what tomorrow will bring. Memories are the ultimate thing that we will take with us, so creating daily memories is simply enriching our lives.
The world, now more than ever, understands what we survivors and thrivers experience. Fear of the unknown permeates. Is a headache or a cough or a fever something to worry about? Are our immune systems jeopardized? Should I go to the doctor? Should I be checked?
After treatment, we are told to go and live our lives, yet we cannot go back to our old selves. Going through cancer changes us and priorities differ. We may no longer have active treatment, but we are still living day-to-day and month-to-month. We still have our 3-month appointments along with things like scanxiety and chemo brain. We wonder if each new pain may be cancer that has spread. Those around us do not get it. They think we are exaggerating and many—even family members—may accuse us of using the “C” card (aka cancer) to make others feel sorry for us. But that is not true. We are living our “new me” lives. And COVID-19 has created “new me” lives in all of us.
At the end of the day, I thank God—the universe—for where I am now, the actual freedom many do not have. Where we live, we are in nature, living in our small farm community. Volunteers pop in daily. We have 1.7 hectares to spread around. We have a farm to work on. We have our own family as well as the others to talk, enjoy meals, and play instruments and games. We end our days walking and running through the hills and coastline of Sintra. We are amazingly blessed, grateful and privileged.
Will COVID-19 take my life? Will cancer come back and take my life in the future? None of us know. But I will remain as careful as I can while also breathing the fresh air, working the soil, building my immune system and creating those daily memories. I will also take risks, much like I did during treatment, to help others. Knowing all that I do all for my body and immune system to be strong, I do not feel as much fear to get out on our farm, cook healthy, plant-based meals and bring produce to those that need the help for their immune systems. I love to help and I believe the gift I received with this farm is to share and help others.
I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I will keep enjoying life to the fullest, even in quarantine, and THAT is something cancer has taught me. Ultimately, I hope COVID-19 will teach us all how precious life and our planet are, how to better take care of ourselves and our land, how to live in a community spirit, how to help each other and especially how to create daily memories.