Cultural Cancer Confusion

Doctor…. Is age on my side?

‘No you are a statistic now.’

Bit harsh but those words are so true, cancer is ageless, faceless, it doesnt care who you are, i bloody have it, aged 29.

Most importantly cancer is raceless, this is a taboo/unspoken subject like most illnesses or ailments in the south asian community. The older generation views at times are one of judgement, pity, religion lead, some believe that illness is simply ‘gods will’, written on the walls.

So i had quite a bit to contend with on top of being diagnosed with stage 4 non small cell lung cancer adenocarcinoma and running independent businesses. I had to try and explain to my dear mum, my relatives in the uk and pakistan that i have an incurable disease.

My current treatment is a pill a day called Afatinib otherwise known as a ‘chemo pill’ because a pill a day sounds cute and taking this shit is not cute i tell you now. The side effects include skin rash which look similar to acne, my relations in Pakistan believed i had chicken pox, i almost admired their blissful ignorance, living for the day and concluding i was a little bit ill.

My Aunty even called me from our ancestral home Ghakhar Mandi, Punjab to tell me to wear a red scarf on my head and not wash for 11 days then eat ‘meetha chawal’, sweet rice dessert. Whether this cures chicken pox i cannot be sure, sounds messy though.

I eventually found an e-leaflet on a Pakistani hospitals website and forwarded it to my grandmother, still its totally new information and not really discussed in our culture the way it is in the west.

Explaining cancer to my dear pakistani mother and business partner was yet another hurdle. We run a restaurant together in Brockley, South London called Masala Wala Cafe. When i was dealing with the symptoms of the yet confirmed cancer, road to diagnosis was not pretty. Doctors hoping it was a thyroid problem, then blood cancer, not lung cancer, not at my age.

My sisters stepped up and split my job role amongst themselves. Gosh i don’t know what i would have done without those three angels, they supported without hesitation and i am forever grateful, true family business.

My poor mother or Ami Ji as we say in Urdu language, i must have tried to tell her in my sick state repeatedly, ‘Ami Ji i have lung cancer, there are tumours growing in my body, it has spread to my liver, bone, lymph nodes’……. Nothing. Sometimes she would say ‘you will get better beyta’ (daughter)

It was again nice that she thought i caught something and it will just go away because that’s what i wished for so much.

If only.

I KNOW TOO MUCH

I KNOW EVERYTHING

I know it’s incurable, i know its a shitty diagnosis, i know the horrific survival statistics and there my immigrant mother was trying to understand the concept of cancer in general.

It wasn’t until one day Ami Ji came over to stay, I was very poorly and on steroids to reduce the upper chest swelling from the internal obstruction a tumour was causing.

Ami Ji cooked me my favourite lentils and massaged my swollen body, when she massaged my back and felt how tender it was, she stopped, ‘ the spots are inside you, i understand beyta’.

I cried and hugged her so tight, she understood, not fully but we had a breakthrough that night.

We are getting there, she knows this is big, i wish she didn’t have to, my dear Ami Ji.

11 thoughts on “Cultural Cancer Confusion

  1. Saima , words can’t express that amazing and gut wrenching piece of writing you have just shared. Maybe consider sending it to Cancer Research or similar organisation for publication in their journals? Equally a Women’s magazine would be sure to publish that . Much love as always to you

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  2. Such powerful writing. Yours has always been an important voice Saima – for women, for women of colour and women in business – but now even more so. I’m in awe of you.

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  3. Saima I had no idea you were going through this. You’ve written a beautiful piece that highlights how important it is to have these conversations across cultural borders. Not just for cancer, but so many illnesses that get swept under the carpet because we don’t want to face them. If you need anything please shout out: we have and always will loved you guys since day one.

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  4. Saima,

    I’ve met you on a couple of times (friend of Lindsay and Paul’s), and noticed your instagram posts detailing your diagnosis which floored me despite not knowing you well at all. You have always struck me as someone gregarious, who I thought was older than your years because of your passion and success of your restaurant. I am so sorry that you and your family are having to deal with this, your writing has touched me and I wish all of you much love xxx

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  5. Just reading your storie after following your restaurant from the beginning and want to tell you how brave you are and hope your positive ways keep you going in this world.
    I was in tears at the end when reading the breakthrough you made with your Mother.

    You are an inspiration and will be helping others in being open with the pain and truths of the Life Destroyer Cancer.

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