Mind Mental Health Health

How my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis changed my life

I don’t wear much jewelry, just a simple silver band on my wedding ring finger. I am obviously not married so I often get questioned on why I always wear the ring on that finger in particular. The ring is simple; it has an “Om” engraved on the outside and my mother’s name on the inside. Next to her name, the date 05/04/17 is engraved. While I consider this day to be the worst day of my life, I choose to carry it with me everywhere I go. On May 4, 2017, my mother was diagnosed with Triple Positive Breast Cancer

When I found out, I wasn’t sure what was an appropriate way to react. How is a 14-year old supposed to make sense of finding out that her mother might die? My parents were insistent on keeping the diagnosis a secret, meaning I couldn’t tell anyone about it, especially my friends. I was to go back to school the next day and pretend like nothing had happened. Pretending like nothing had happened meant timed mental breakdowns in the school bathroom during passing periods between classes and trying not to think about it in class.

I could not have been further from “fine”.

It also meant creating bogus explanations for why my eyes were so red all day long. “I’m fine, I just have really bad allergies right now”. “I’m fine, I just had a fight with my mother last night”. “I’m fine, it’s just friend drama”. I could not have been further from “fine”; internally, I wanted to polish off a whole bottle of vodka to feel numb. Often, my hair would fall out and my nose would randomly start bleeding in response to the immense amount of stress I was under. 

Eventually, my friends found out and things started to get better. Some stayed with me all night long, some were caught up in their own depression after finding out, and some distracted me from thinking about it. I started to drift away from being depressed about the situation to being enraged about it. I channeled all the anger I felt towards cancer into my schoolwork and maxed out my GPA for the term. The anger pushed me to work harder and stronger so that I could study to give back to the doctors that were saving my mother’s life.

I took up a position at the local hospital to volunteer on the oncology floor and the pathology lab to detect cancer. By learning the inner-workings of my mother’s disease in the lab and serving other cancer patients, I felt a closeness with her that I could not feel after watching her get progressively sicker. I learned how to read lab reports and interpret medical scans so that I could look at hers when I got home and explain them to our family to provide us with a temporary illusion of security. 

A last-minute cancellation of someone else’s appointment may have saved her life.

By the time sophomore year rolled around, I had grown so accustomed to hearing the word “cancer”, I decided that I was going to make everyone around me hear about it as well. With the help of three of my friends, I started a Breast Cancer awareness campaign to honor my mom’s fight with Breast Cancer and to raise awareness for Breast Cancer in the South Asian community. It is not uncommon for South Asian women to neglect their own health while managing their jobs and the household. In fact, my mother put off going to the doctor to get the lump in her breast for months herself.

A last-minute cancellation of someone else’s appointment may have saved her life as she was able to get her scans done earlier than expected because of the last-minute opening. To prevent this from occurring in other families, my friends and I spent months going door-to-door in predominantly Asian neighborhoods to teach families how to self-check for tumors. We hosted bake sales, attended various events, met with politicians, and hosted a radio show to answer questions about Breast Cancer. In doing so, I was able to feel another sense of closeness with my mother, despite not being able to physically be with her at all times. 

On November 2, 2017, my mother was declared cancer-free and officially in remission. While she was not even halfway done with her treatment, her body was able to fight the cancer off much fast than expected. Today, she is the business director of three YMCAs in our hometown and continues to serve the community by speaking with current cancer patients to inspire them. 

This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and coincidently marks three years of my mother being in remission. While she no longer has cancer, it’s still a part of our family as we continue to raise awareness for the disease together.

My mother’s diagnosis may have been the hardest thing I have ever had to endure, but I am glad that my family and I were able to turn it into a means to make a change in a community that desperately needed the wake-up call.

Family Life

My mom survived breast cancer. Am I next?

On average, an estimated 15.2% of new cancer cases in the United States are women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That means that 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. 

These statistics are indicative of families, touched eternally by a cancer that is more than just a disease – it is linear. Breast cancer often weaves a thread, mangled in fate and fear, through mothers, daughters, and sisters alike. The survivors among them are the superheroes of nearly every generation of women, powering through all of the anxiety, body disfiguring surgeries or treatments, and impromptu decision-making associated with the onset of such an illness. They take this disease and nip it in the bud, almost passively, acknowledging the unforgiving weight that will forever be weighing down their bodies and minds. 

In some cases, before these women can even think about what comes next, they are sewed up, stripped, and shaved. Left without any sensation in their breast area after a mastectomy, and feeling less and less whole with every visit to the oncologist. It is hard for most women to even feel at home in their bodies anymore. 

In February of 2017, my mother sat in a bleak and claustrophobic doctor’s office for her regular mammogram visit and heard the dreadful words that every woman lives in fear of, “I think we’re going to need to take a second exam. There may be cancer.” 

There was. 

She has told me that she spent most of her life, 38 years to be exact, in terror of what was surely to come. When my mother was 17 years old, the same age that I had been when she was diagnosed, her mother passed away after a long and debilitating battle with breast cancer. Afterward, this disease became a constant threat. So, in some ways, her diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else.

For me, however, it was excruciating. I had a hard time fathoming the enormity of it. Often, I would find myself drenched in hot and burning tears, unable to put into words what I was feeling. I was incoherent and unable to be comforted. I really hated it when people tried to comfort me, too—it felt condescending. I didn’t want to need them.

But, at the same time, I wasn’t even close to being the strong person that I presented to the world. I was falling hard—and fast. Most days, I would go to school or hang out with my friends, but the entire time I felt as if there were a million knives stabbing my chest at any given moment, and I couldn’t help it. Sometimes, I even liked feeling the pain. If my mom had to suffer, then, I thought, so did I. 

Years later I’m able to articulate my thoughts a little more clearly. I was terrified, desperate, and I didn’t know where to turn. So much was happening all the time and I was grieving my old self. That is, the self that hadn’t yet felt such complete and sunken remorse. There was this urgency to do everything right. In a situation like that, there’s no room for mistakes and I was incredibly nervous that I would mess up. Or maybe I was nervous that something would mess me up. Either way, I changed a lot that year. 

Unfortunately, our story is not an uncommon one. 

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, or daughter has been diagnosed. In addition, women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of breast cancer than women who do not carry the gene. 

My mom is thankfully, and gracefully, in remission today. Her fight seemed, on the outside, to be continuous and suffocating. But, she is a survivor, bold and vivacious, in all of her glory. She has the scars and the strength to prove it, too. 

I am well aware that my risk of this disease is high. But, I am also confident that this does not mean that it is a death sentence. Regardless of being only 21 years old, I am diligent in conducting breast exams on myself at least once a month in an attempt to detect any early warning signs of breast cancer. What I search for is any abnormal lumps or changes in the breast tissue/skin. 

The good news is that with advancing technologies the survival rate of people diagnosed with breast cancer is steadily increasing, even though the number of people getting sick remains stagnant. 

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying, but breast cancer for me feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I won’t be able to stop being overwhelmed by this sharp and unrelenting nervousness until it is completely out of my system. And we all know that there is only one way for that to happen. 

For now, I am trying to focus on what I am able to control. Breast cancer is certainly not one of those things. But, I am in control of my mindset. While it is important for me not to let my guard down, at some point I have to just let go and let it be. I trust that fate will run its course. 

I come from a long legacy of confident and courageous women, all beautiful and bountiful in their own right. So, it would be a disservice if I did not take their wisdom and hold onto it tightly. I mean, I watched while my own mother boldly stared her fears directly in the face. She never skipped a beat, not even for a second. Her resilience against a disease that is otherwise overbearing is nothing short of inspiring and I am so proud of her. Because of her, I am starting to think that maybe I can handle it too, that maybe I can be as brave as her, when and if the day comes. 

I am not alone in my fear, although it may seem like it sometimes. I am one of millions living and feeling these same anxieties at full volume, so I must not let it overcome me. Instead, I have to remind myself to be introspective and to keep moving forward.


Here’s why tattoos are more than just skin deep

There has always been a lingering, extremely negative stigma around tattoos. Whether that be the impression that they’re a reckless craft or profession, that they’re a reflection of unprofessionalism on the wearer, or that the kind of person who gets tattoos is a bad influence and misguided. My whole life, the narrative that tattoos are associated with illegal activities and reckless behaviour has been practically embedded into my social imagining. For a while, I believed it too. I thought that having a tattoo very much meant being unsuccessful in the career that I chose and that I would be going against the picture that had been painted for me. And in doing so, I would be letting everyone around me down, everyone who played some kind of part in raising me. Funnily enough, these are the same people who told me countless times that it is important to march to the beat of my own drum and to be the captain of my own ship. Go figure.

Especially being a girl, I’ve been told that tattoos are ugly, inappropriate, and distasteful. That the second I taint my body with ink, the body that is also supposed to be my own canvas, my worth diminishes dramatically. People start to look at me differently. I am no longer the girl that they thought I was. In a matter of seconds, their entire perception of me changes and everything they know about me is altered. 

This is the reality for so many young people and it is incredibly disheartening because most tattoos, if not all, can hold a deeper meaning. Plus, it shouldn’t even matter if the tattoo is meaningful or not, as long as the person adorned by it is happy and comfortable. Tattoos can be an exceptional medium for self-expression. Every little detail in a tattoo is an example of individuality that is impossible to replicate because everyone’s skin and everyone’s intent is entirely different. 

Most tattoos are real-life embellishments drenched in symbolism and motifs, and if you really think about it, tattoos are beautiful beyond being art. They are meant to be read like a book and tell you something about the wearer. You can learn a multitude of unspoken stories about a person just by looking at their tattoos, and these are usually the things that are most dear to their heart and truly make them who they are. These are the things that they’re so determined to never let go of that they literally make it a part of their skin and their blood. They tell you stories of growth, romance, culture, grief, passion, religion, wit, and determination. People wear art that speaks to them and makes them feel something. Tattoos are a love story in and of themselves. 

I cherish my tattoo. It’s a very small pink dove near my left rib cage. I was 18 years old at the time that I got it done. Most people thought that I was acting in defiance, that I was being rebellious, and that I would regret it eventually. 

Well, they were all wrong. 

I wasn’t being defiant and I will never regret it. I got my tattoo because it is something that I knew I needed to do for myself if I was ever going to move past what had happened, if I was ever going to move forward. That year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a double mastectomy, and went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy. With all of those odds against her, she survived. She is the strongest woman that I’ve ever known and will ever know. 

But still, the pressure and the helplessness that I felt and continue to feel can sometimes seem never-ending. I can never shake that fear, no matter how relieved I am to be out of the thick of it. So, I decided to commemorate the moment with something meaningful that is mine, and mine entirely. 

My favorite quote from the novel Jane Eyre says this: “I am no bird and no net ensnares me, I am a free human being with an independent will.” That quote seemed to describe what I was feeling, and really what I needed to be told, effortlessly. So, my bird is pink for breast cancer. I got it as a daily reminder of strength, resilience, and soaring above the ashes, just as my mother did. I too can soar.

Science Now + Beyond

Here’s why you’re not supposed to wear a bra, according to science

Hipsters, Kardashians, your closest friends — people are hanging up their bras these days. There have always been societal phases and styles that do not require bras, but it seems to me that there’s been a lot in media recently about going out au naturel.

So, why? What’s the big deal about bras?

Before the bra, we had the corset, and that’s not a style I would personally like to bring back. Cue flashback to Keira Knightley passing out in Pirates of the Caribbean. Anyway, in 1914, Mary Phelps Jacobs created the first widely used “backless brassiere.” Bras are worn to offer breasts support and minimize motion during exercise. Sounds good, right? Why would you not wear a bra?

Through a 15 year study, the French scientist, Jean-Denis Ruillon found that while bras have traditionally been thought of as preventing back pain and sagging breasts, bras do nothing to reduce pain and actually weaken muscles, causing breasts to sag more. His results are self-admittedly not definitive because he would need a larger sample size to come to a more serious conclusion. Rouillon also observed that for those women who do not wear a bra, their nipples were 7 millimeters higher per year toward the shoulder.

Moreover, Dr. Joanna Scurr found that wearing the wrong bra can damage breasts.

Physicians and researchers claim that tight-fitting bras block lymph drainage, which prevents the body from releasing all the toxins it needs to. This issue may contribute to the development of breast cancer. These tight-fitting bras might also be a factor in the emergence of benign, but painful breast cysts and lumps. Research has shown that women who wear bras 24 hours a day have a higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not.

Underwire bras are supposedly the most dangerous, though. The underwire is almost always made of metal coated in plastic. Below your breasts are two neurolymphatic reflex points associated the the liver, gallbladder, and stomach. When metal is constantly applied to any energy channel, after a while the stimulation becomes sedation and the channel no longer performs the functions it should.

If you are an adult who has worn a bra for years, to stop wearing a bra probably will not allow the benefits younger women might receive if they are to stop wearing the bra. It’s also worth discussing that many people dedicated to the #freethenipple movement don’t wear a bra either.

For many, not wearing a bra just feels more comfortable, sexier even.

Others might feel they need the support a bra to be comfortable. The right choice for you might not be the right choice for me and not everyone has to agree.

Ultimately, though, the most important factor in choosing a bra is to make sure it is the correct fit.

The Fam Family Life

My world fell apart when my mother was diagnosed with cancer

It was a silent afternoon when my parents called me and my younger sister downstairs to tell us about the news.

We had no idea what was going on, but we knew something was off. We hopped onto the couch as we watched our parents’ sorrowful expressions.

“Your mother’s tests came back, she has breast cancer,” my father said to us. My younger sister and I exchanged a quick worried glance, but we couldn’t just break down like that. We had to be strong for our parents.

My mom was scared. There was no way to describe the fear in her eyes me and my family saw every day. But one thing I’ve always admired about her was her strength. My mom was a nurse, so she was fully aware of what was going to happen as far as the procedure and the type of care she would need afterward.

He explained to us what would happen in the following weeks. I was the oldest child, so now the responsibilities of the house were to be shifted onto me. I also had to take care of my sister and help her with school, and I had to pass my driver’s license test.

My father had his license revoked the previous month due to health problems, so I was going to be the only driver in the house.

Now it was my turn to take all responsibilities into my hand and balance out the last semester of my junior year in high school, which was basically the most important. It’s safe to say that I was freaking out about how I was going to make it out in one piece.

I was facing something incredibly difficult and I had no idea how to react. Everything in my life changed, especially because I was faced with so many more priorities. But this period in my life was what changed and matured me the most as a person.

When everyone is suddenly depending on you for one thing or another, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But it was during this time when I realized that school meant nothing in comparison to being there for my family.

There was no doubt that family was always the first priority, but for a high school junior, school was everything to me at the time. I had to climb to the top with the highest scores to get into a good college, right?

No, school wasn’t everything.

No matter how messed up our education system is, where people don’t give a crap about what they actually learn in school, school should never be first priority. Health comes first. Health of yourself and of your family. And it took me this experience to realize it.

It was hard to shift from prioritizing school to prioritizing my family, but I had grown so much in these months. It wasn’t about hours of Honors Chemistry or AP US History homework, it was about taking care of my mother and my family.

Everything was brought upon my shoulders, but I wasn’t complaining. I adjusted to my new schedule and felt good being able to be there for the people who needed me the most. Sometimes, our most challenging times can best reflect who we are as people and can really shape how we mature and what we gain.

Through prayer and family support, we all made it out okay.

The doctor was actually able to remove the tumor completely from her body. She didn’t have to go through chemotherapy, but she takes heavy medication every day and will have to for the next five years.

I still remember the day we got the news, none of us could keep from crying. This not only brought our family closer but made us appreciate all the little things in life and the moments we have together.