Yesterday, I finally submitted my thesis. It’s hard to believe that this is really the end of my 2 year M.Sc. experience. As much as I want to talk about the fun stuff, like the dramas at the lab and all the struggles and triumphs, I feel like there is something more pressing to say; something that really struck me a while back. I’m going to talk about cancer. Cancer is a broad topic and there is a lot I can say about what I’ve learned. My master’s project involved breast cancer genomics and chemotherapy resistance. I’ve learned so much about the different types of breast cancer and gene mutations. However, I won’t talk about what I’ve learned about cancer. I will share about what I’ve learned from cancer. Aside from the nitty gritty details, cancer is a much bigger picture. There is a really weird feeling to be working for a supervisor who is also a breast surgeon. In our lab, we deal with many patient biopsies, blood and surgical samples. The identity of these patients are confidential and are always labeled simply by a code. We talk and discuss about their cases professionally, as we should, but by being exposed to this everyday, sometimes it slips my mind that these are actual women. Women out there who are currently struggling, or whom have already passed away. Women who are mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters; women who have people they love and are loved in return. When I make the journey to the breast clinic at the Jewish General, I see so many people in the waiting room looking just like you and me. You couldn’t even tell they have cancer.
I will never forget my first year in university, in one of my first oncology classes. The professor told us to look at the person on our right, and to look at the person on our left. When I made eye contact with the two people sitting beside me, we shared a polite smile. Then the professor said that if the two people on either side of me does not develop cancer in their lifetime, then I will. 2 in 3 people get cancer, but it affects everyone. I read in a brochure that an individual does not get cancer; a family gets cancer. The entire family enters the same war, and I know how true that is. Seeing the busy operating schedule of my supervisor only confirms that so many people are affected. It’s unreal to me. I walk around and cross paths with so many strangers every day and I assume that everyone I see is okay. In reality, in the city of Montreal alone, so many people have breast cancer alone, hidden from the naked eye. Now what would happen if I amplify that number to include prostate cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, lymphoma, leukemia, colorectal cancer… and then further expand to involve Canada, the US, American, Europe, Africa, Asia… etc. I can’t imagine. More people are fighting for their lives than I can ever know.
The biggest risk factor associated with cancer is age. The older one gets, the more likely to develop cancer. FYI: if anyone tells you that by doing so and so, or by eating so and so, you would not get cancer, don’t fall for it. Unless you can stop yourself from aging, nobody can predict who will fall a victim. Of course, there are very potent environmental factors that increases or decreases the risk of cancer, but it is never 100% preventable. Cancer is a group of diseases with different behaviors and responses. When someone makes a generalized statement about cancer, take it with a grain of salt and do your research. Don’t believe everything you hear or read, especially from the media and the internet. Despite strives in treatment and detection, cancer is still very much a mystery. /FYI.
In the lab, a few of our members deals with patients directly. Sometimes I hear of young women in their 20s or 30s who are not doing well, or who have relapse, or who have just deceased . This scares me, because I start to think that that could have been me (or maybe it will be me). I know that we are always saying that life is unpredictable and that we should cherish everyone around us. It’s the sort of thing you hear so often that it flies right by you. But this just became so real to me. Too often, we wait for something to come up before taking action. But I just recently had an epiphany that I can’t wait for that moment. I can’t always think “later”. I don’t want to find myself in situations that are “too late”. It’s so important to truly cherish everyone and everything, yet so hard to fully do. I’ve been trying to change myself to be someone better and happier. To not complain about the small things (to not complain at all). I just want to embrace everything and forgive freely. I feel like I finally understand what it is to cherish my life. From here on, I will live with this mantra: When you have your health, you have everything. And at this moment, I have everything. I just needed to realize it.