Fight Like a Girl
My guess is that every person who reads this has lost at least one loved one to cancer. And there are so many types out there: breast, colon, skin, bone, cervical, brain… name an organ or a body part and someone you know has probably died from that type of cancer. This disease doesn’t discriminate based on socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, military status, or even age. People with money die from cancer. People without money die from cancer. But it seems like the people with the brightest spirits and most positive attitudes find themselves fighting cancer. And to that I say, “Fuck Cancer”.
My dear friend, Tina, had leukemia when we were in elementary school. She was the youngest child of Chinese immigrants, I don’t even remember if her parents spoke English, and she was nothing but a tiny bundle of sweetness and smarts. Tina wore a colorful hat in kindergarten and first grade. She would run around on the playground with us, playing foursquare and tether ball, always a step or two behind because she was weak from her disease. I never had to check to see if she was following our group because I could hear her giggle catch up to us about 10 seconds before she did. Tina had a quiet spirit, a loud laugh, and her smile was so authentic and honest. Despite her illness, she was just another kid at school. I remember there was a very windy day on the blacktop, my hair was whipping around in my face and my favorite navy skirt was flapping in the wind. I silently thanked my mom for making me wear shorts underneath it. Unfortunately, Tina’s hat flew off on the playground that afternoon. She grabbed her head with her hands, hung her head in shame, and stopped. It was as if her feet froze in place and she was torn between running after her hat or hiding her bald head from all of us. I don’t remember which little boy brought her the hat, I just remember Tina sobbing as the teacher on recess duty wrapped her up in a big embrace and helped her place her hat back on her head. She wasn’t completely bald, it was as if she had long strands and random patches of hair. Some of the crueler kids laughed and pointed. I wanted to go kick all of their asses. I was a total tomboy back then and felt a responsibility to protect all the other Asian immigrant kids. I don’t know why but I definitely kicked a few boys in the nuts for making fun of my friends who didn’t speak English or had cancer.
A few years later, my mom sat me down in the family room to “talk” to me. It felt scary, like a big cloud hung over our plush brown couch. My family never held family meetings or sat in the family room other than to watch TV together. I looked up at my mom and her eyes were puffy and she looked miserable. She looked at her slippers, and the coffee table and finally she looked into my eyes and said, “Your Grandma Connie has cancer. It is terminal.” I didn’t know what that word meant, “terminal,” so I asked her and my mom snapped, “It means she is going to die!” and she stormed toward her bedroom. As the eldest girl, my mom was very close to Grandma. And one of the rules in our household was always, “family comes first.” Whatever behaviors you exhibit reflect on your family, not just you as an individual. So to say we were close as a family unit is an understatement. My mom was truly devastated by the news that my Grandma was dying from cancer. We all were.
During one of our hospital visits, Grandma said to me, “Hoy, Jen-nee-pear, (she had an adorable Filipina accent) I have black blood.” That simple statement FREAKED ME OUT. How was her blood black? Why was it black? Could they fix it? Could I catch it? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it? My head was spinning and I felt scared and sick but Grandma sat there, smiling in her tissue-thin hospital gown, her eyes as bright as always. She didn’t mean that her blood had become black in color, Grandma asked who had donated her most recent blood transfusion. The nurse replied that the donation came from a nice African American woman. See, my Grandma had black blood now. That experience always sticks with me and I am sure that it why I try to donate blood to the Red Cross at least twice a year. I am a universal donor, O Positive, and with all the recent disasters and emergencies happening around the world, the Red Cross is in desperate need of O Positive blood. Trust me, they call me incessantly every eight weeks to get me down to the office.
My Grandma passed away peacefully at home. She was sitting in her own bed, surrounded by relatives and friends. A nurse was with us in the room, cooing soothing words that Connie was getting ready to pass on and that we should all prepare ourselves. I remember staring wide-eyed at my aunties and cousins, trying to figure out what to do. We were just waiting for Grandma to die and I felt tear welling in my eyes and my throat. The nurse finally said that she was gone and when I looked at Grandma, her jaw was opening and closing so she couldn’t be dead. Unfortunately, the nurse said that was an automatic muscular reaction and that Connie was indeed gone.
I’ve lost grandparents, uncles, friends, acquaintences and co-workers to cancer. There is no clear cause as to why some people get cancer. The American Cancer Website has very clear and easy to understand informaiton to learn more about this group of diseases lumped under the term, cancer. They write the following:
“Cancer is such a common disease that it is no surprise that many families have at least a few members who have had cancer. Sometimes, certain types of cancer seem to run in some families. This can be caused by a number of factors. It can be because family members have certain risk factors in common, such as smoking, which can cause many types of cancer. It can also be due in part to some other factors, like obesity, that tend to run in families and influence cancer risk.
But in some cases the cancer is caused by an abnormal gene that is being passed along from generation to generation. Although this is often referred to as inherited cancer, what is inherited is the abnormal gene that can lead to cancer, not the cancer itself. Only about 5% to 10% of all cancers are inherited – resulting directly from gene defects (called mutations) inherited from a parent. “
And then there is that very specific, breast cancer, which has prompted me to write this week. Two very strong women, who are both rays of sunshine to everyone they touch, are in various stages of chemotherapy in their fight against breast cancer. They are both very open with their experience on Facebook so that friends and family can understand and support. One woman, I will call her Smiley, hosted head-shaving party before she started chemo and her daughter joined her in shaving her own hair off. The party became a celebration of life and way to show solidarity with Smiley. She is documenting chemotherapy treatments in photos and I marvel at her brave attitude. But Smiley is a service woman in the US military. She is no stranger to hard work, discipline and fighting.
My other friend, Sunshine, has been a survivor for the last several years. She was quite young when her diagnosis was discovered, in her 30s, and endured treatments like a champion. Sunshine also knows how to fight, as a Muay Thai kickboxer. Her fighting spirit has served her well as she battles this disease. And recently, the doctors discovered a mass that needs to be treated with chemotherapy. Before the treatment started, Sunshine cut off her long tresses and raised money to harvest eggs for her future baby. Preserving a future for fertility and procreation is not something I had ever heard about before Sunshine. Of course I donated money and tried to spread the word about her cause. I know my sister also made a donation, for which I am grateful. The harvest was successful, Sunshine has a half dozen eggs.
And then I received one more piece of shitty breast cancer news about yet another dear friend. This time she is my hula sister. Hula sisters have a unique bond. To be a cohesive group, ready to perform or compete, hula sisters have to sweat, work, sing, laugh, cry and sweat some more together, following the kauna of a hula mele and choreography of a kumu hula. If you’re lucky, you also get to drink and disco disco and enjoy the world together. But hula sisters feel me on this one. It isn’t enough to take a class together, there is a special connection that forms with hula sisters. That connection is for life.
I say all that because one of my hula sisters, who is a cervical cancer survivor, was diagnosed with a breast cancer tumor this week. She will need surgery and all the treatment that surrounds surgery. It felt like a punch to the gut to hear the news and I wanted to burst into tears as I read the email on my iPhone last night. We are all praying for everyone fighting the fight. And I’ve discovered there is this Breast Cancer Culture. More than raising awareness of the disease or funds for research, Breast Cancer Culture is about women being strong and feminine and brave. The color pink is associated with breast cancer to ensure that women continue to feel like women through their treatment and therapy. Treatment may mean a mastectomy and losing one’s hair. Therapy may mean dropping weight but not being able to exercise. There is a spirit and a flair to “fight like a girl” against this terrible disease, breast cancer. I know my friends are fighting like the mother who is also a soldier, a Muay Thai martial artist and hula dancer that they are. All of those identities are a part of being a woman.
Every morning at 9am PST, we are sending a prayer mob/ho’oponopono out to my hula sister!