Sisterhood

I have been thinking about a word I use a lot, ‘sisterhood’ and what it means.

I am an exceptional circumstance where the greater beings above gifted me with three wonderful sisters and my mother who gave birth to all four of us by Caesarian section.

ALL FOUR!

Disappointment when a girl is born is quite common in south Asian culture. Boys are viewed as much superior, so there was me, the first born in 1989 then Sanam and Ikra were born a few years apart.

GIRLS, would you believe?

Health risks increase with every Caesarian procedure yet my mother went there and out popped girl number four, Nafeesa in 1996.

We are like a girl band, without the musical talent.

From a young age I have been surrounded by lots of girls, crappy girly toys, polly pockets, barbies & hair clips.

We spent a lot of time ruining my mother’s makeup and shuffling around the house in her court shoes and clothes whilst she cooked us dinner.

I am lucky that this is what I know, as I grew older my feelings towards friendships were similar to my family.

I look not just for loose acquaintances but for sisters.

Girls I could talk to about anything and everything and be myself around, people I could support and turn to in times of need.

I grew up with my next door neighbour Sarah Inge, born three months apart we attended primary and secondary school together. She is classed as the unofficial ‘fifth sister’, we have spent ridiculous amounts of time together and have a truly special bond.

I look at my beginnings and as rocky as other aspects of my life have become I can see my roots were very strong.

I had the female foundations set up to support me today and I’m extremely grateful for this.

When my parents divorced it was vitally important for my sister unit to stick together.

My mother tainted with a divorce status, divorce being massively frowned upon in south Asian culture.

Then there was us,

FOUR GIRLS, what a burden.

How the hell was my mother going to manage to marry us all off on her own, would have been a popular thought of hers and many south Asian women.

My family are surviving and have got to this point despite the societal, financial and cultural challenges because we stuck together through it all.

To this day despite a stage 4 cancer diagnosis we have a multi award winning female run restaurant in a male dominated industry.

We would not be where we are without the army of supporters (majority women) behind us, lifting us up in times of need and generally being our cheerleaders.

The warped messages women have been taught for so long is to simply hate ourselves and to hate each other, how gross is that?

In my culture the worst critics are women, when I visited Pakistan recently it was the women who were giving me war style interrogations about why I wasn’t married still and being critical about my clothes not being fashionable enough.

The men seemed way more relaxed, with passing questions and comments.

Maybe my aunties mouths were bigger, or they had genuine limited views on what or who women should be, I think it’s the latter and that’s really sad.

Us ladies are extremely hard on ourselves, in a mans world we need to unpick what we have been taught by society and media.

Women are so beautiful and so unique, Hollywood and the era of perfect celebrity is dying, we are better than that in 2019.

We don’t need to be married off like property and become someone’s ‘responsibility’, we have greater minds than that!

We are not defined by our titles or how many children we have or dishes we can cook, we are bigger than that.

There was a saying emblazoned on my restaurant Masala Wala Cafe windows for the first year of trading, it read ‘women are the real architects of a community’, a quote by Harriet Beacher Stowe.

This rings so true, we are there quietly working, helping the world go round at the credit to men.

Globally we have made plenty of progress so far but only through sisterhood will we make more noise and achieve better equality for women in this world.

When women support women, mountains move, stick together ladies xxx

 

Full Circle

Round and round we go, life is like a series of circles. 

So here I am one year on from the most extraordinary year where life slapped me alive.

End of January 2018 I was newly engaged to my love and I experienced a devastating miscarriage which led to a spell of ill health and a cancer diagnosis, life as I knew it changed forever.

I have been looking back and so very sad for the previous version of me, as I look to just be stable and live in peace now, innocent dreams now tainted as I carry this new cancer world with me.

Where I am now is very testing as I have experienced true pain as a symptom of the cancer, a tumour causing brachial plexus compression, nerves in my right arm are being obstructed and I have lost some mobility due to this.

Feelings of fear and anger have surfaced of how my body is capable of working against me like this, like a betrayal of sort. 

This experience has been mentally testing as I have had to learn to be patient with daily mundane tasks, let alone cooking and writing. Feelings of shame has been a huge factor to challenge as my mind wonders what people will think as I am a restaurateur and cannot even hold a spoon properly.

On top of this the synthetic drugs that are helping me cope generally numb your brain down and come with a whole host of side effects to counter the good they do to control the pain.

Funny that one year on after quite a good spell of stability and being very independent and busy living that I am having a taste of the cancer patient life again.

I am currently on a cocktail of pain drugs and have just had five sessions of radiotherapy to my neck.

I found this process traumatic, attending hospital for days and days for tests, sessions, scans and appointments, the faint baby blue walls, the crusty faded uninspiring art, the gaunt faces of patients, full of sadness and despair.

Hospitals are places that supposedly heal people yet everyone there looks sick of life and ready to throw in the towel.

The sessions although short and very quick were painful, I would have to lay on a hard table with a custom made face mask to keep my head still during the sessions. The nerve pain shooting through my arm constantly reminding me why I was there in the first place.

Life throwing me those fire bombs, triggering my post traumatic stress disorder as I flash back to previous hospital admissions.  

I recently hit a milestone, I made it to the grand old age of 30, which without medical intervention would not have been possible.

I marked the occasion with loved ones with my favourite food and drinks at home, yet I had this dull pain in my arm at the time reminding my that my life is limited, that the next decade is not guaranteed.

Despite all of this, I am here to move forward, this resilience I do not know where I am finding it but through all of this darkness is hope, that things will change, that everything is temporary.

My life will keep moving and appearing different and my emotions will change, my pain will change, I will see improvements and I will see decline.

I know I have golden moments ahead where I will laugh so hard to the point of tears, I know I will achieve great things, I will travel and continue to be inspired by life.

I thought I would be getting used to this thing called life but every damn day something new blows up in my face and humbles me that I know nothing and have so much to learn. 

Life ever transient running in circles.

New Year, Present Me

Every year we kid ourselves, new year new me! 

That we are going to change dramatically with the turn of the new year, whether it be physical aesthetics or changing addictive habits.

How about our spiritual and mental wellbeing?

This is something that usually takes a back seat as we all continue to attempt to cope with modern-day stresses.

Jobs or occupations that consume every hour followed by financial woes and then there is social pressure to be accepted whatever the hell that means, going out, drinking, being seen, wearing the coolest fashion, having the most hygge home, owning a home, having a bigger home, going on lavish holidays, being feminist enough, having aggressive yet agreeable political views, virtue signalling, pretending you care, having children, wanting children, getting married, dating anyone and everyone and in the same breath we are all DISCONNECTED and DEPRESSED more than ever.

Exhausting just writing all this, I’m just pushing the modern thought process.

How about growth, naturally evolving constantly like a beautiful plant and appreciating the everyday miracles?

My serious life style changes took place half way through 2018 and felt scary yet liberating too, I felt true change within myself, slowly as I recovered from what I now acknowledge as near death.

There are no two ways about it, my body was trying to kill itself.

The second largest vein in the human body, superior vena cava moves blood from the upper half of the body to the heart and I had a ruddy tumour obstructing it, quietly, silently, it was literally killing me.

At times, as ridiculous as it sounds I experienced imposter syndrome as without medical intervention it would be impossible for me to be here today, I was DYING.

It was a gradual, heartbreaking yet a therapeutic process for me to recover from this and look forward, instead of my brain feedback looping the traumatic events of this year. 

For the first time I am here, now, aware, I am not consumed by the financial/survival pressures this modern world has put upon me, my family are safe and regardless of my terminal diagnosis so am I.

My message this year is to DO LESS, you can still be productive and purposeful.

Stress is pulling the trigger on so many modern diseases, causing inflammation, anxiety, IBS, gut and digestive health issues, cancer, heart disease/attacks, depression, strokes, addiction, we are all cells and our mind and body are totally one hundred percent connected.

Not for one moment am I blaming diseases on individuals, what I want to do is empower myself and hopefully others to overcome lifes hurdles, whatever they may be by taking ownership.

I am constantly asked about the process of being diagnosed and what the doctors say but rarely am I asked…… and then what happened after?

What’s life like LIVING with cancer everyday? 

I have never felt so at peace in my entire life, I have forgiven so many traumatic factors that may have contributed to my condition and I have got a handle of my PTSD and anxiety to the best of my ability. 

Most importantly my focus is on ensuring as I continue with my care giving nature, serving others that I explored through starting a restaurant and sharing my experiences, that I totally love myself and nourish my soul and body too.

I first ‘came out’ online in June this year (2018) after letting the words stage 4 cancer sink in for about 6 weeks.

My colourful and passionate world totally shattered, it cut me deep, like a bad relationship break up with myself. 

A mixture of messages poured in of love and also total and utter fear, people exclaimed ‘sorry for you’, ‘sorry YOU are going through this’, almost separating and isolating my condition from themselves.

The messages I was particularly drawn to, which brought my great comfort were of empathy, hope and encouragement, not empty pity.

I’m a warrior and not programmed to shy away and hide in the corner and those who knew me well enough cheered me on at my weakest.

I did not look like those white bald heads you usually see on the adverts, dying, I was far from that generic cancer picture.

I wanted to show myself and others that there are other stories to be had and that there is a life before and after a terminal diagnosis no matter what age or race you are.

This year I am patting myself on the back for the little miracles, health is stable, I am still that British Pakistani restaurateur, newly wed Wife, Sister, Daughter, adding writer/blogger to my credentials. 

I have loose goals for this year but nothing is set in stone because well life is not guaranteed to me or anybody so live passionately yet more peacefully now!

You do not have to be anything or anyone, you are perfect just the way you are and can damn well do what you want when you want. 

Happy New Year, heres to a gradually transformative 2019 for all xxx

Time to Reflect

I have always loved Christmas, yes people, us ‘brown people’ celebrate christmas too as I so often get awkwardly asked.

This time of year is especially important for me as I have watched each season turn for the first time in my entire life.

There is a tree in my back garden which I watched blossom with the most beautiful blush pink colour when I got diagnosed with cancer in spring.

April 2018 with my dear friends Sarah and Sharan shortly after the diagnosis

It flourished in summer when I reached health stability and got married to my love and leaves fell into Autumn when my emotions released and I felt more at ease with my shortened, uncertain future.

Leaves are now rotting in Winter, signalling the end of this turbulent and transformative year heading towards new beginnings, life around the corner.

The seasons we experience here are so very magical, I am truly embracing the winter and these darker days, its sad that it takes disease for me to stop and appreciate how much of a blessing life is and how important I am to myself and others.

Our modern surroundings tell us to show and tell, spend and be excessive with food, drink and gifts which most of the time creates an empty void for many who do not achieve the ‘perfect’ christmas experience.

Achieving the perfect experience is unobtainable, it’s an illusion in our heads, created by grotesque, money grabbing retailers and marketers who I used to work for in another life.

Mine and Gareth’s subtle Christmas tree this year

This year I am full of gratitude for being here to experience this season, I am most excited to reflect upon my experiences no matter how painful and extreme some may have been.

Some miraculous lessons have come from this year and I feel cliché ‘conscious’, for the first time in my life.

I always had wisdom, I told people whats best and what to do which makes me a fantastic restaurateur, but a reflective cancer patient with a message, can it be so?

I am learning everyday, to be vocal and speak up for myself, if I didn’t get a private ultrasound scan on my neck my prognosis could have been much worse if not terminal from the get go.

I have learnt this year that I am totally worthy, my opinions, my thoughts, my being.

I have purpose and things to achieve for myself and others, big or small we are all miracles, teaching each other how to live, how to love, how to hurt and how to be, every single one of us.

Hurting has been a huge lesson for me, the pain has taught me to love harder.

We are all here on the same journey, side by side whether you choose to see this or not.

We are all here together, this disease has changed me, I needed to learn from this experience and its taught me in a short space of time what is important.

I realise how powerful my mind is, how it caused such physical panic attacks within my being from sheer fear of the unknown, it could also be a contribution to my diagnosis.

Ancient medicine considers disease of the lungs to be linked to grief and sadness, I had to explore this as I have mentioned previously I lived a significant life before the diagnosis.

I experienced my fair share of these emotions in my life from such a young age, I felt abandonment and extreme pressure to grow up and react to nightmare scenarios for any young teen.

I have been working on releasing these emotions and become more loving to myself and those around me because a life threatening disease is literally shouting at me to.

Now I’m not saying disease is self-inflicted, I’m merely drawing on my own very colourful life experiences and taking ownership.

It’s totally a control thing, I’m not in control of a lot of me physically and medically, what I am in control of is my mind and my thoughts, that’s where the real battle lies.

This will hopefully transcend upon my body and give me a chance to live and love.

Wishing you all a reflective winter season of deep loving thoughts towards yourself and others, light in darkness, hope over fear as we all look towards the new year together xxx

Alicante moonlight

Acceptance

Fear of dying, fear of leaving this world, my physical being will turn to dust and loved ones left behind.

The weird thing is that from the day we are born, we are all dying.

So why are we so afraid of death and talking about the end, as if we are all entitled to an unlimited existence?

In my ancestral home, Punjab, Pakistan my grandfather Chaudhry Fazal Hussain Cheema died last year, his body in a coffin, paraded in the village for locals to say their goodbyes and he was buried and showered with rose petals immediately.

This follows a period of mourning and the grief processed by his doors being constantly open for people to give respects and in most cases share their desperate grief together.  

My grandfather Chaudhry Fazal Hussain Cheema died in 2017

In the UK however we use terminologies such as ‘went to sleep’ or ‘passed away’ we draw curtains on coffins in quite a cold and distant manner, we do not speak about death and find it difficult to express the process.

Our fears are internalised and when a loved one dies, we cannot cope with the thought and will do anything to not address the emotions.

I have recently attempted to come to grips with my mortality and slowly but surely I am beginning to accept my physical being and my whole soul. 

A little inspiration to face life and death from my Punjabi roots in this western world.

Not just the stage 4 lung cancer but all of me, every single part, I am accepting the hardships, trials and tribulations, I am accepting the traumas as tough lessons.

I am acknowledging the strengths, bravery, joy, loves and the great qualities that have come from my life experiences.

My very good friend and spirit queen Amy Charlie calls me an ‘old soul’, as soon as she called me this, it clicked.

I have always felt mature, older than my peers, I had to grow up very quickly in my teens and play the unofficial father role to my beautiful sisters.

So as hard as it is to say, why not have an old people’s disease to match?

Life is essentially a series of experiences you don’t actually think of your physical being, it’s all in the mind, memories, reactions, stories, it’s all in the head.

When you die, people do not remember what clothes you were wearing or how many things you owned or titles you accumulate, people remember your spirit and how you acted.

Your soul and energy never dies and I truly believe this as I recall how I personally grieve for people close to me.

Sharon Inge, my second mother died in 2013 but her lust for life and electric energy is still very much here

In my moments of sleepwalking through my teens and 20s I would dare to tell people the truth. This level of authenticity and honesty is something I have always struggled with as it proved unpopular at times.

Fast forward to now I am willing to channel this, I am being brutally honest with myself and sharing my experiences for others to read because I have started writing for the first time and cannot seem to stop!

This started as cathartic therapy to manage irrational thoughts and desperate emotions that come with a major life shortening diagnosis.

By sharing my words with others I feel less alone, I feel…accepted.

I am accepting my miscarriage, I am accepting my stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, I am accepting that life isn’t fair and I hope this helps others to not feel so ‘sorry’ when devastation occurs.

Courage is something I have always had but never acknowledged because I was too busy surviving. Now I realise everything I do, every step I take is full of COURAGE to the end days. 

I suppose at the age of 29 I am learning lessons people do not learn in their lifetimes, for this I feel incredibly lucky and sad at the same time.

I actually grieve for the sleepwalking version of Saima, before the diagnosis, you know the one that gets up without a nose bleed which reminds her that she is a cancer patient.

But there is a lesson here somewhere, a lot of reflection this past year on who I was and who I have become.

I heard somewhere that suffering brings wisdom, yes I am me because of my experiences, so why hide, why show the edited version of myself to others?

Some may call this ‘over sharing’ but when you face death like this you become invincible.

From the moments I sat swollen in A&E corridors with my love Gareth, confused as to what was attacking my young body.

To now where I experience health stability and glimmers of looking forward to my immediate future with my loved ones.

I am aware I have wisdom and thoughts to share now and sometimes it takes a cancer diagnosis to unlock your true potential.

So thank you and no thank you cancer for bringing me to the present and teaching me how to LIVE NOW.

As strange as it may seem, slowly, acceptance has arrived.

Food is love

To share food is glorious

To taste food is a gift

Food is love

I realise this now because for the first time in my life I experienced stomatitus, extreme inflammation of the mouth and lips.

I was heartbroken, one of my five senses totally ruined and in bits I cried and felt real anxiety at meal times.

I was desperate to nourish my ill cancer body, my mouth too painful and odd to enjoy the luxury of normal tastes that I would take for granted previously.

Gareth would have to watch me struggle to eat then convince me to abandon my meal as he saw how much pain I was inflicting upon myself.

I am very stubborn and tried my hardest at meal times to consume.

I am Punjabi so why can’t I eat a spicy curry, this is in my DNA. I have eaten my mothers ancestral Pakistani cooking since eating solid food, I mourned for my former self before the cancer diagnosis.

Growing up, my home was aggressively centered around food no matter how rich or poor we were my mother would always feed us and guests, guest is god.

I say aggressively because south Asian women are not to be messed with, especially when it comes to feeding you.

My mother would list all the foods possible under the sun until you admit defeat and she would then come out of the kitchen with an unexpected meal or snack.

Of course you would eat it all, it is almost like being kidnapped, no choice but to eat, a kinda cool situation really, scary at times but no complaints.

Now back to stomatitis, I would sit there my belly hungry, my brain hungry for taste sensations. I am a restaurateur, food is my livelihood.

I felt like a sorry shameful mess, how can I run a Pakistani curry house and not taste  food, let alone curry?

This is some sort of messed up masterplan, the one true joy in my life….

GONE

JUST LIKE THAT

My oncologist had started me on a high dose of Afatanib, the targeted therapy drug to work me down. That is what they want to do, to get you to the most ‘tolerant’ but effective point with the treatment.

At this stage I was truly struggling with the most unsightly skin rash and sore mouth, even my lips would hurt if so much as a tomato went near them.

I lost an extreme amount of weight due to the anxiety, I just love food so much, I eat it 3 times a day and always finished my meals.

I made a career out of it and now I was withering away in a sorry heap at home, starving for taste.

In the next clinic session the oncologist took one look at my skin and made the decision to reduce the dosage.

My mouth took sometime to restore and tadah, I can eat chilli for now, phew!

Yes the Pakistani curry lover can now eat her shaandaar home food!

So please, here I share a recipe close to my heart, Gajar Muttar, it’s so simple.

I keep putting it on the menu at Masala Wala Cafe because I adore it so much.

Its does not sound like much but the delicate sweetness of the carrots against the pungent spices bring me genuine joy and happiness.

I love you food what a privilege to work with you and taste you whilst I can today, I love you I love you.  

If you are going though conditions or treatments that affect your taste buds omit the chilli, garlic and any overwhelming flavours. This can still be a delicious, cheap and unforgettable treat.

Power, nourishment and flavour to you all!

Gajar Muttar – Spiced carrot and peas (serves 3-4 , if i’m there 2 people)

Ingredients

Carrots thinly chopped in rounds 1kg

Green Peas 300 gms

1 Cinnamon Stick

Half bulb of Garlic blended or finely chopped

Ginger 2-3 cm blended or finely chopped

1 white onion blended or finely chopped

1 chopped green chilli

Turmeric 1 tsp

Chilli powder half tsp

Coriander powder 1 tsp

Garam Masala 1 tsp

Mustard seeds 1 tsp

Coriander for garnish

Salt to taste

Method

In a saucepan fry mustard seeds then quickly add onions and lightly fry till golden

Add garlic, ginger and a little water as to make sure it does not burn

Add dry spices and salt until all binded and a splash of water, cook and stir for a few minutes

Add prepped carrots and cook for 10 minutes or until carrots are soft

add peas to the softened carrots and cook for 3-5 minutes

Top with chopped coriander

Serve hot with basmati rice or flat breads

Panic!

I write this and I feel the cortisol hormones running through my body, PANIC!

When your mortality has been served up to you your brain can do crazy things, mind wanders, I have always had a creative mind full of ideas so when life changing news such as disease had been delivered to me I literally went MAD.

Fight or flight is a natural human instinct, its survival, we are all animals and have amazing complex brains, in my life I have had to exhaust this more so than your average person. 

Yes I lived quite an extraordinary life before my stage 4 diagnosis so these coping mechanisms have been more apparent in my makeup.

Because of the life I led I come across as a ‘toughie’ i’m a fixer, a problem solver, I’m a successful business owner, a natural leader.

But this all stems from fear of cultural judgement, fear of my family falling apart, fear of losing our home and fear of not getting food on the table.

I had to grow up fast from the age of 12 to support my Pakistani mother and three sisters after a very messy divorce, I had to step into an unofficial father role.

We went through devastating poverty and difficulty, life was challenging at times but we had each other and that was my strength and driving force when I felt down and at times alone as I was the oldest of the siblings.

My beautiful sisters Sanam, Ikra and Nafeesa, dear world please look after these girls, I have done what I can now and they are thriving like the most magical flowers you have ever seen, they amaze me everyday with their wisdom, beauty and grace despite what life tries to throw at us.

With all the side effects from steroids and radiotherapy earlier this year I felt like a piece of meat, there were moments I wouldn’t talk and google cancer for hours. I was a cancer patient at the mercy of the doctors, not the powerful, independent Saima that I know.  

Mid April this year, at home, it was 4am and I couldn’t sleep, racing thoughts about my death sentence running around in my head, I went to get up and passed out.

When I came round I said to Gareth

‘I think i’m dying, i’m dying, call an ambulance’.

Of course someone in my condition, he didn’t hesitate and called the emergency services, we both didn’t recognise that I was having my first panic attack.

We went to A&E (a familiar place) and the doctor bowed to my irrational thoughts that what was happening to me could be the cancer and ordered a CT scan and casually sent me home with liquid morphine. 

I have experienced quite a few failings with mental health in the NHS, I rang my oncology nurse one day and mentioned ‘tingling hands and feet’ and she expressed that it simply isn’t a side effect of the targeted therapy drug I was on and left it at that.

The breakthrough was when I went back to my GP, I essentially had to self diagnose post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she further added that I was suffering with panic disorder as well. 

She got to work prescribing me Escitalopram a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and suggested counselling therapy.

Me, tough old me, Saima, now an anxious ball of panic, how is this so? I never showed signs of anxiety, I always felt strong fixing problems around me, noticing errors and tackling them head first.

I realise now I was dealing with the cards I was dealt, these scenarios and situations I was conditioned to deal with, it didn’t make it right or healthy, we all need peace of mind.

When cancer turned up, my cup was already full and I didn’t have a lot of room to deal with such a heavy diagnosis.

Now my physical and mental health has improved because despite what life throws at me I am conditioned to take it in my stride, this is a true blessing and goes to show how resilient us humans are, and what we are capable of.

In the height of my panic I was experiencing attacks several times a day, especially at night. Through my sheer determination to learn and fix problems, psychological therapy, medication, meditation, exercise and diet I have a much more ‘comfortable’ existence. 

I am currently being put through the ultimate endurance test in all aspects of my life, I know I can’t ‘fight’ this disease, but I am determined to live.