I love my Hostas!

Four weeks ago, I did not know what a hosta was.  Today I can actually recognize a Bleeding Heart, a Coral Bells and a Lime Ruffles Heuchera.  Yes, I have become a “wanna be” gardener!  This shift happened quite unexpectedly.  For the longest time, I found gardening intimidating, time consuming and tedious.  I avoided it like the plague and my garden showed the sorry effects of my lack of effort and energy. Continue reading “I love my Hostas!”

You Did It!

It was an incredible convocation!  30,000 people packed in the middle of the Morningside Campus of Columbia University, on New York’s Upper West Side.  Families and friends from across the globe, cheering on the Grads.  On the stage, we saw the President of Columbia University, Deans of the different programs, “Uncle Jeff” (what Sabrina and her classmates call their professor, the renowned development economist, Jeffrey Sachs) and other key Administrators.  Graduates, resplendent in their Columbia blue gowns and caps, sat in their designated spots.  Each school sported a symbol that they carried to differentiate themselves:  the School of Dentistry had giant toothbrushes, the Business School had fake $100 bills, the Teachers College had apples, the Engineering School had giant inflatable hammers, and graduates from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) carried the flags of their home countries.  The atmosphere was charged with anticipation and excitement.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  And my Sabrina Natasha Premji was right in the middle of this, graduating from SIPA with a Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice, a 2-year program.

Two years ago, I did not know if I would be alive to witness this milestone.  When I was undergoing treatment for my two blood cancers, the thought of seeing Sabrina graduate was often what kept me going. There were last minute challenges that made me wonder if I would be able to attend the ceremony.  Five days before we were to fly to New York, I was at the hospital getting a blood transfusion to boost my dangerously low 63 hemoglobin count.  One day before the trip, I saw bleeding in my PICC line which freaked me out (turns out it was a blister beside the PICC line that was oozing blood).  On the day of our flight, my oncologist had me go to the hospital in the morning to check my blood levels to see if I needed another blood or platelet transfusion.  Miraculously, my hemoglobin climbed to an all-time high of 106, and I was cleared for travel!

Nagib and I flew to New York on Tuesday evening, where we met Sabrina, Shayne and Afzal (who had both travelled from Nairobi to celebrate Sabrina’s big day).    The kids had planned the whole trip for us, and what a celebration it was!

We started Wednesday morning with breakfast at Padoca Bakery, café that specializes in unusual pastries and muffins.  We had PDQ (Brazilian cheese bread made with Yuca flour), while sitting on a swing and admiring the tea-kettle shaped lights.

 

Then we made our way to Columbia, and walked with thousands of family and friends into a festive atmosphere, as the graduates were led in with the traditional graduation song.

The guest speaker for the big convocation was Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations.  His message to the students was the importance of being engaged and making a difference in matters that concern the world, from climate change to politics to the alleviation of poverty.

We had great seats, the clouds dissipated and we enjoyed the warmth of the mid-morning sun.

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After a full morning, we celebrated by having lunch at Casa Agave, a Mexican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, where the server made the most divine guacamole right at our table (Holy Guacamole!).  And then, Sabrina and Shayne surprised me with tickets to a Broadway show.  Aladdin showed us ‘a whole new world’!  And now I break out in Aladdin songs all the time (“Prince Ali, fabulous He, Ali Ababua….”).

We ended the perfect day with dinner at Proper West, a sports bar where we helped Shayne cheer on his Pittsburgh Penguins to victory.

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Then, we got to do it all over again the next day, where 824 SIPA graduates from 79 countries, had their own Graduation ceremony, followed by a reception.  When Sabrina’s name was called out, she forgot all about poise and decorum and ran across the stage where she was warmly hugged by SIPA’s Program Director.  We got to be proud parents as a number of faculty told us they had a name for her: “Superstar” for the work she did at school and outside the program.

In the past two years, Sabrina balanced her Ivy-League education with co-founding a social enterprise, Kidogo Early Years, and serving as its Chief Exploration Officer.   Her day generally started at 4 or 5 in the morning so she could attend meetings virtually to manage the 8-hour time difference between New York and Kenya.  Between classes, she’d hop around the city, speaking at Acumen’s Partner Gathering one day and at the Rockefeller Foundation the next. On weekends, she traveled across the world, presenting at Harvard, judging case competitions in San Francisco, attending conferences in Johannesburg, Denmark and Beijing, pitching in Paris – and she’d arrive back in New York just in time to write her next exam. Often, Nagib & I couldn’t keep track of where our daughter was! And as if that wasn’t enough, she came home to Toronto to support me when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and started undergoing chemotherapy. I don’t think she slept very much in the past two years!

In the afternoon, Sabrina and Afzal had arranged for the photographer from their engagement photo-shoot to come and take commemorative pictures of us.

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We celebrated the SIPA graduation by going to New York’s pre-eminent Peruvian restaurant, Pio Pio, for dinner, and having Mama Wuanita’s chicken with their famous green sauce.  I made a case for staying a few more days in New York because I wanted to prolong this incredible feeling of euphoria.  Alas, we had to come home on Friday as I had a bloodwork appointment in preparation for chemo number 4 (of 6) on Tuesday, after the long weekend.   But, right now, I am giving all kinds of thanks to God for allowing me to be a witness to Sabrina’s graduation and whispering to her words I heard many parents proudly say : “You did it!”

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Mid-way Checkpoint

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I am now mid-way through my chemo treatment for breast cancer: 3 chemo sessions done, with 3 more to go.  I wish I could say that with each chemo, things get easier.  The truth is that chemo is not very selective and cannot differentiate between good and bad cells.  It just invades the body and kills both good and bad cells.  And each chemo has a cumulative effect so that each additional chemo is worse than the one before.  Typically, I have found that the first 10 days of chemo for me are bad, and then things improve significantly and I join the land of the living.  Side-effects, when things are tough, include mouth sores, loss of appetite, no taste buds (so food tastes like sand paper), chemo brain, weight loss followed by weight gain, vomiting, diarrhea, nose bleeds and fatigue.  I think the part I have found most difficult is the fatigue, when even getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge.

This week I found out what was making me so exhausted.  My hemoglobin count has been dropping rapidly.  2 weeks ago, it was 83.  This week it is 62.  To put things in perspective, the average hemoglobin for a woman is 120 and hospitals will typically give you a blood transfusion when your blood count hits 70.  So today I spent the day at the hospital where I received 2 pints of blood.  As always, we respectfully named the bags of blood.  We called the first one Massimo (which means the greatest) and we called the second bag, Eva (which means life).  I said a prayer of thanks to the donors that gave me this gift of life, and then I prayed as each drop of blood entered my body happily and cheerfully.

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So, there are good days and there are bad days:

Some good days bring exceptionally delightful life events — Shayne is coming home on Saturday after being in Kenya for some time.  And, on Tuesday, we all fly to New York to attend Sabrina’s graduation from Columbia University!

Some bad days can be really challenging.  Cancer is a tough taskmaster.  I am learning that it is okay to be sad when things are difficult and take time to look after myself.  Sometimes this means taking naps, sometimes it is about asking for help, sometimes it is saying no to activities, sometimes it is just about having a good cry.  An equally important lesson for me is knowing that it is not healthy to stay in this state of sadness for long.

So, I have found an incredibly positive antidote to sadness:  having multiple projects to look forward to that enrich my life and feed my soul.  More on this in my next post!

Amazing Artists!

Today I pay tribute to two incredible artists who are the best at their craft.

1a039d3b3aa9d4adef8bfee00982726fBut let me start from the beginning.  As you know, my hair started falling out last week as a result of the chemotherapy.  I hung on to it for as long as I could until it was impossible as bald patches started appearing randomly all across my head.  it was not pretty.  So my beautiful friend and hair stylist, Afsan, came to the rescue and shaved my head, with Nagib looking on nervously.

2016-03-31 002The next day, my friend Tarquin Singh came home and applied a stunning henna crown on my head.  Tarquin operates a company called Henna Planet. This is the third time I have worked with Tarquin, as I have lost hair from cancer treatment three times in the past 4 years.  She designs crowns after consulting with the client, so it is a wonderful process of co-creativity.  I told her to find a way to include the words, “when you choose hope” at the back of the crown.  And she did!

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Next, I connected with my friend Chris Hughes from A Nerd’s World to ask if he could take pictures of the henna crown experience to preserve the memory of the event.  I met Chris four years ago as part of my journey through cancer when he offered a promotion to take complimentary pictures of individuals battling cancer. I took him up on it! Since then Chris and I have kept in touch and developed an abiding friendship.  Chris assigned Kenneth Appiah from A Nerd’s World to take the pictures.

Here is a gallery of pictures that bring the Henna Crown design by Tarquin Singh and the creativity of photographer Ken Appiah together, in perfect harmony.  It is yet another reminder for me that cancer, if you choose to, can bring interesting people into your life, and can allow for creative expressions and experiences that make difficult times very special.

And now, on to Chemotherapy #2.

– Munira.

P.S. When You Choose Hope is my YouTube Channel.  Here you can find "Munira's Journey", a 55-minute film about my first battle with cancer. Also see this blog post: "Once You Choose Hope, Anything is Possible" to find out more about the origins of the phrase.

“Oh Yeah. I remember that.”

 

IMG_1680It has been 2 weeks since my first chemotherapy treatment, and everything is coming back to me like an old, familiar song.  That first week after chemo was tough.  Like the nausea and the going to the bathroom a lot.  Like the nosebleeds – lots of it.  Like how everything tasted like sawdust.  Like the fatigue that saw me sleeping for 14 hours a day.  And the “chemo brain” syndrome that caused me to forget things. And the painful mouthsores.  Then, a week later, everything changed.  I started to taste food again, and have rediscovered my love affair with oranges and Cadbury Whole Nut chocolate bars!  The fatigue has lifted and I have tons of energy.  Life is so great!

I think it has helped that I have gone through chemo twice before, so I know what to expect.  Most days, as I go through different side-effects, I find myself saying, “Oh Yeah, I remember that!” and then promptly find a way to deal with it.  And very easily, I am relying on familiar habits to help me ride through the chemo. Carrot juice and beets everyday. Green smoothies. Vitamins. Ensure nutritional supplements for when I can’t eat. Sleep when I need it.  Walks to keep my body moving.  And getting things done when I have short bursts of energy.  Chemo, with all its side-effects, is actually quite manageable when you stop fighting it and instead listen to your body with all the wisdom it imparts.

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Afsan, Munira and Sabrina

Today, my hair has started to fall out. This is something I was expecting to happen, and yet it is not as devastating as it was when it happened four years ago.  I am holding on to my hair, literally, for as long as I can, before I start sporting wigs. My beautiful friend and hairstylist, Afsan, took Sabrina and me wig shopping last week, and we picked up 4 cool wigs!  They wanted me to go a bit wild, and showed me wigs with updos and exotic styles and colours.  It was one of my tired days and I did not feel like playing, so I opted for wigs that I could see myself wear everyday.  Again my past collided with my present as the owners of the wig place totally remembered me from 4 years ago and helped me source the newest styles and colours.

My next chemo is on April 4th and I am actually looking forward to it because it brings me one step closer to eradicating this cancer.  Going through cancer this time is like having a second child.  The first time everything is a novelty and you are on hyper-alert.  The second time is easier because you know what to expect and it is not as daunting.  An example of this, Nagib always reminds me, is when Shayne was a baby and he would drop a cookie on the floor, we would fuss over it and eventually give him a new one.  Whereas, when Sabrina came along, well… even if the toast with butter and jam fell wet-side down, we would brush off any visible dirt and give it back to her.  So much more relaxed with the second one!

So, for my second chemo, you should see what I have planned — a DVD player loaded with my favourite movie, my go-to red striped blanket, Don Miguel’s new book which I am currently reading, oranges and a Whole Nut Chocolate bar.  Oh, and an iPad to write another post!  Why, its almost like being on … no, not quite, vacation!