There's a friend who's going through rounds of chemo now, and my grandmother who beat breast cancer last year, and a close friend who hardly ever talks about the time she had skin cancer, only mentioning in passing, "When I was sick..."
And then there is my friend Steven, who on this day three years ago lost his life to a rare and agressive cancer.
It happened suddenly. One night he had extreme abdomen pain and called 911. None of his roommates heard the paramedics knocking, so he crawled across the floor to open the door. This happened to him twice. They didn't know what it was at first. He was young (29) and fit (a rock climber) and a healthy eater (loved to cook). He was happy, always talking about saving up money to buy his girlfriend a nice engagement ring. Young healthy fit people are not supposed to get cancer. But he did. He was diagnosed right before his 30th birthday in February 2003. He was told he had a 20% chance. I thought I heard wrong at first. “A 20% chance of what?” I asked for clarification. Of survival, they said.
Everything moved quickly, the cancer, his life. He moved down to L.A. for treatment. And we – his friends – packed his belongings for him. Another friend drove his car down to L.A. I went to visit after his chemo. He was so frail and skinny, it was shocking. He needed help walking across the room. I was constantly on edge, and he was always reminding me to calm down. To calm down and be normal. Okay, I thought, my job is to be as normal as possible, and to be positive. I believed he would survive. I believed if we all believed he would beat it, he would, and then one day when we were all older, he could mention in passing, “When I was sick…”
Two months after his birthday, he died in the ICU. I went to Dallas, his hometown, a city I had never been to, to see him put in the ground.
I don’t know why I’m telling this story, except to say that maybe there is nothing you can do when cancer hits. You fight as hard as you can, and that is all you can do.
But it can’t hurt to know what the facts are. To know, for example, that cancer is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans. And that Asian American women have the fastest growing rate of breast cancer. You need to know this, because even doctors may not. Like the woman in this story in today’s Oakland Tribune who was told she was too young and too Asian to have breast cancer. (The story is by Momo Chang, a Hyphen editor.) Or that Asians are at higher risk of getting Hepatitis B which often doesn’t show symptoms, and when left untreated, can lead to liver cancer. We have much higher rates of liver and stomach cancers. And API women (along with Latinas) are also more likely to develop cervical cancer and also more likely to die from it.
You need to know, though I hope it never becomes personal to you.
To find materials about cancer in Asian languages, visit this database, which was recently launched by the American Cancer Society and the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training (AANCART).