Almost a year ago today — just a few days before my birthday, I was sitting at this very chair, looking out at this very window that I decided to write about my journey. It seems so many of my good ideas come from sitting next to a bright window with a cup of matcha by my side.
Going through cancer and active treatment was a great weight that just had to be unburdened. I learned so much along the way that it felt like my story had to be told. So here I am — many haircuts later, many miles traveled later, many friends made later, much life lived later — happier, shinier, wiser and more peaceful. One year later and I still have so many stories to share and lessons to ponder. Thank you, thank you, thank you. These are distillations from year 35:
Health and happiness are the resulting state of being in balance across different facets of well-being. Is it possible to be happy after cancer? To feel whole and fulfilled? The answer is a resounding YES. In fact, I’ve admitted a few times that I feel that much more joy, openness, and creativity now than prior to cancer diagnosis. During the months I was undergoing chemo, my husband gave me what was probably one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever received — to take a leave of absence from my job and just work on me. It felt like a ridiculous sentiment at the time since I was looking for things to take my mind off of the hole that was cancer treatment. But I did it anyway, and it was during this time that I put down my guard and followed the direction my soul was directing me to.
I started working with a therapist that specialized in mindfulness approach to oncology. I had to take care of my mind — my mind that tormented me with why-me questions and worst-case scenarios. I sought help and it turned out to be exactly what I needed to get my feet under me again. I deepened my spiritual practice through meditation and yoga, which to this day, are key to keeping me balanced and grounded and present. I joined Classpass which allowed me to move my body in so many different ways and in so many different places. I took on a whole-food plant-based diet and thereby limiting my meat, dairy, alcohol, and processed food intake. Not only do I have consistent energy throughout the day, better skin, and “regular” trips to the bathroom, I also feel good that I am nourishing my body with clean fuel. I rid my home and personal products of harmful chemicals, synthetic fragrances, and hormone-disrupting ingredients. I have adopted a minimal approach to things, thereby also reducing clutter around the house. I made friends — lots of new friends so that I now have a support system of very strong women in NY. I spoke up about wanting more from work and they’ve since given me many opportunities to show my leadership and truly stretch my wings.
Doing all these things slowly built up my sense of self, and eventually made me feel whole and complete. This, in turn, led to gratitude, and then into happiness. I used to think that health was only about diet and exercise, but it turns out, it is an amalgamation of mental health, body movement, nutrition, personal development, environment, community, and spirituality. When all of these are in balance, we tend to feel better and truly in the flow.
Living in the Blue Zone. There is a term, Blue Zone, which are regions of the world where people supposedly live longer, healthier lives. It is no coincidence that the 9 factors universally claimed to be the reasons for this longevity follows the same blueprint as the above:
- Moderate, regular physical activity.
- Life purpose.
- Stress Reduction
- Moderate caloric intake.
- Plant-based diet
- Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
- Engagement in spirituality or religion.
- Engagement in family life.
- Engagement in social life.
And while I don’t intend to pack up and move to any of these blue zones per se, I do keep this in mind every time I feel guilty for missing a gym class whenever a friend invites me out to brunch or a catch up session over a glass of wine. What I may think as failing in the exercise category of health, is actually my way of maintaining strong social structure, which is equally if not more important than that early morning spin class. This is all to say that balance is key, and as long as I am able to work out the next day (or substitute wine for kombucha!), then it is all good.
I understand now how the aged are ok with — no, more than ok with — they choose a simple life. Waking up, walking in nature, eating wholesome food – fruit from the trees, and most importantly enjoying the company of others. I remember my Grandma spending hours on end chatting with her sisters or friends, sometimes over food, sometimes over a simple glass of juice. There was always thunderous laughter, sarcasm, and gossip. I get that now. Time with friends and family is time well-spent. It was not only their form of entertainment, it was also an investment in their health.
Acceptance is the ultimate sign of wisdom. A few weeks after my mastectomy, I remember sitting around the dinner table with Larry’s Dad. I was in a pretty bad place. I asked him earnestly, “Do you think this was meant to happen to me?”. He paused for a second to think and said, “Pabayaan mo na, nandyan na yan eh.” — Just let it be, it’s already there. Just let it be?? Just. Let. It. Be. In honesty, his answer at the time pained me, for every fiber of my being could not accept getting cancer at 33. How could I accept something so horrible? How could I just let it be? No, I had to fight it, I had to deny it, I had to hide it. And I did. And in doing so, it created so much pain and anguish. I fell into a deep anxiety-ridden hole with no visible escape. It wasn’t until I finally opened up about it did the weight slowly start to lift from my shoulders. Sharing my story, I was met with so much compassion and love that it erased any judgements and blame I had toward myself. And I started feeling better. Trying to change the things that have already happened means we are not accepting what is. And accepting what is frees us from the pain of living in the past and the unpredictable future. I now know that when my father-in-law shared those very simple words, he did not mean for me to keel over in weakness, rather to flex the strength of conviction and trust knowing that there is freedom and peace and ultimate wisdom in acceptance.
In order to truly understand life, you must be able to ponder death. This may be my most Buddhist statement yet, however, there is great peace that comes with accepting the universal truth: we will all perish. Nothing is permanent. Everything comes, and everything goes. After all, life on earth is all about relativity. Would day be day without night? Would sweet exist without salty? Is pleasure real if there was no pain? I think about my yoga practice. The first downward dog is usually uncomfortable and awkward — my joints are stiff, hamstrings tight, shoulders burning. Yet as the hour progresses and I start doing more difficult poses, it feels amazing to come home to downward dog. What was painful before, feels oh-so-good now. It’s all relative.
This is also true with life. If we were all to live forever, we would lose the zest of exploring new parts of the world or the excitement of building a life with our partner. The continuum would be infinite, the plane so flat. It is knowing that we have a time limit that makes us truly LIVE. So going through something like cancer and being so in touch with this notion of dying, if harnessed the right way, could be a great catalyst for having the guts to live the life you’ve always wanted. There is no time to waste on regret or sadness or circles that don’t lift you up or work that doesn’t bring fulfillment. It’s like being born a second time, this time having the conviction to live life by design and not by default.
There is such a fine line between life and death, living and dying. And that delicate balance is beautiful. It is where appreciation lives. I can read about someone dying, whether real or fictional, and know that it could be me — it could be any one of us. This is unlike before cancer when I believed there was a distinct barrier between “them” and “me”. They are in that situation and I am not. Or that I had years to think about getting sick and dying. That is no longer the case, and it makes everything — every moment, every experience, every now sweeter.
We are all connected. This is a simple statement that can easily be taken for granted. After all, we’ve likely heard it from a song lyric or read it on the wall of a yoga studio. As I sit back and watch the world around me, it becomes more and more apparent how true this rings. In the context of cancer, I think about the time when I went for my breast biopsy. It was a week after an ultrasound confirmed a suspicious mass in my left breast, and I sat in a waiting room full of people for nearly two hours past my scheduled appointment time. I was nervous, irritated, and emotional when the only thing the front desk person could tell me was, “The doctor is still with another patient, there’s nothing else I can tell you.” In the flurry of emotion, I ran outside as tears started flowing down my face. I leaned into a small nook on the side of the building and sobbed into my hands. It was then when I felt a presence next to me. It was a middle-aged African-American lady with the fanciest Prada sunglasses and short meticulously-styled hair reaching out her hand in comfort.
“I saw you run past me crying…now what’s wrong?”
“The front desk.” I stammered. There were no words to translate how scared I was of the probability of cancer.
“Listen, you’re going to be fine. It’s probably nothing. And even if it was something, you can get rid of it! My Grandmother got breast cancer and she’s doing fine. My daughter had to do a biopsy and it came back negative. You’re going to be ok.”
All I could do was chase after my runny nose and wipe the tears away on my jeans.
“Now stop crying. God does not give us things we can’t handle. Just have faith..everything will be all right.”
She then told me a bit about her life and that she recently left her cheating husband who, by the way, gave her herpes. “Hey at least you could get rid of cancer. Herpes – I gotta live with this forever!” I managed a slight chuckle as I studied her face. I wish she wasn’t wearing sunglasses. She gave me the warmest hug and told me she loved me. I couldn’t believe it — a complete stranger not only took the time to comfort me in the middle of the sidewalk, but offered the sweetest words you could ever give to another person — love. This was a person I normally would have thought I had nothing in common with. But at that time, we had one undeniable similarity: pain. And in that pain, we found each other. That was the most generous act of kindness and humanity I’ve ever experienced, and it’s what got me through the biopsy. Regardless of the outcome, I will never forget that angel in the black sunglasses that taught me the biggest lesson on compassion.
The thing is, everyone has a “cancer”. It could be in the form of many different things: infertility, trauma, grief, failure, heartache — all these things can tear you down and strip you of your identity. Mine happened to be breast cancer, but it doesn’t mean that mine is better or worse than anyone else’s. Fear feels the same, anger feels the same, sadness feels the same – regardless of the cause, the feeling feels the same. And from this is born compassion. We are indeed all connected.
Create more than you consume. I read this from a dear friend’s blog and it stuck with me. Prior to diagnosis, I barely did anything creative. I used to write poetry, I used to dance, I used to draw, and make little crafts projects. That was a side of me that got trampled on by the desire to do “real” work and real work meant head down in numbers and data. I lost a part of myself. And with the uptick of social media, I found myself mindlessly scrolling — consuming all these unintended images and stories that affected my mood without me even knowing. I all of a sudden felt like I needed more of this or look more like that. It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.
That’s why it is no surprise that during my chemo hiatus, I was being pulled to things like photography, painting, and poetry. I found a dance group in NY and re-kindled my love for Tahitian dance. I continued to look for creative outlets with which I could express myself, which has brought me back to balance.
And this brings me to my last lesson: Purging is good for the soul. Ever heard of the quote: “You have to first let go of what you don’t want, to make space for what you do want.” This is what purging is for me. At my Aruba yoga retreat, we were asked to bring a pen and journal, which I scoffed at initially because hello, I’m not in fifth grade. And yet, every morning before yoga, we were asked to write in our journal and out came an avalanche of thoughts and emotions and ideas! It allowed for so much self-discovery, and it is now a habit I’ve taken on daily. Getting rid of the mind clutter frees me up for affirmations and healthy thoughts throughout the day. Besides, if the Obamas journal, then so can I!
As I celebrate my 35th birthday, I am thankful I decided to start this blog. It has been instrumental to my healing, as it allowed me to not just purge, but also reinforce my passion for writing, and most especially, to connect with all of you!
So as I say hello to another year of life, I leave you with this:
Never mind the creases on your face or the grays atop your head. Aging is a gift — embrace it, love it, be proud of it.
Nourish your body as if it’s the most expensive thing you own (because it is), celebrate milestones as if they are the most important days of your life (because they are), and take full advantage of life as if you are the most important person in the world (because you are)!
Live so full and love so hard that you find peace with what you have. Everyday. ❤