Curveballs and Blessings

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Doing my best “Mother-in-law” impression.

In all the excitement of Sabrina’s wedding, I’ve not had the time (or inclination) to pay any attention to my cancer situation.  It has been an interesting few months.  A time of highs and lows, of ups and downs, of peaks and valleys.  The surgery and chemotherapy were hard on my body, but I have persevered by looking forward.  I choose life!

Tuesday, July 5th was a date that we had circled on our calendars.  It was scheduled to be the date of my sixth and final chemo for breast cancer.  I was beyond excited to celebrate this milestone, and to return to living life with as much normalcy as possible.  Unfortunately, my hemoglobin and platelet counts were too low for me to tolerate chemo.  Dr. Robson wrote up orders for me to have a blood transfusion instead — to boost up my counts — and asked me to return to the hospital for chemo on Friday, July 8th. Alas, it was not to be.  Despite two units of blood, my counts were still pretty low and the doctor decided to cancel the final chemo.  His rationale was that my body was taking longer and longer to recover after each chemo, and he couldn’t, in good faith, put my body through yet another gruelling chemo.  I had mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I felt cheated because I did not complete the full treatment; it felt like unfinished business. On the other hand, I felt a sense of relief that I wouldn’t have to go through the horrible side-effects.  It took me a couple of days to re-adjust my thinking and accept that I was not meant to have that final chemo and that was okay.

Around that time, my trusted PICC line got dislodged and the surrounding area on my arm got infected.  The PICC line was used to administer the chemo and the plan was to use it for the herceptin infusions I need to get, every 3 weeks, until March 2017.  I shed a few tears and then reframed the situation.  Not having the PICC line meant that I could start working out again and so I promptly rejoined Goodlife Fitness!

Three weeks ago, on August 8th, after enjoying all the wedding festivities, I started radiation treatments at the Odette Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital.  The plan is for daily treatments to take place 5 days a week (with weekends off), for a total of 25 treatments over 5 weeks. This is the first time in my cancer history that I am undergoing radiation and it is quite an experience.  The first planning session was long and I had to lie very still while the technicians determined where exactly they would radiate.  There was a lot of math and numbers and calculations as the technicians moved me, first this way, than another, to make sure that they had the coordinates just right.

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Daily radiation therapy at Sunnybrook Hospital

The difference between chemotherapy and radiation is like night and day. Chemotherapy is not very intelligent.  While it destroys cancer cells, it also harms perfectly healthy fast moving cells because it just does not know the difference.  Radiation, on the other hand, is about exactness and targeting only the specific areas where cancerous cells were seen (in my right breast and lymph nodes under my arm).  I am now more than half-way through my radiation treatments and I have not noticed any side-effects.  I have heard from patients that the side-effects will come later and I will experience skin irritation, burning, itching, soreness and fatigue.  I have been prescribed a cream to apply to the area a few times a day and I am doing this diligently.

Overall, I am feeling pretty awesome!  Yet again I see the benefit of focusing on all that is great in my life – family, love, celebration.  Cancer does not stand a chance!

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Wedding Day – July 31, 2016:  Nagib, Munira, Sabrina and Shayne.

 

 

Emergency Kit

I was there when Sabrina first asked Shayne to be her “Man of Honour” for her wedding. After laughing out loud, he realized – as we all did – that she was actually quite serious and that this was a non-negotiable for her. We also knew that this was highly non-traditional. Using all her powers of persuasion (and probably a lot of her skills from her Negotiation class at Columbia!), Sabrina told Shayne that this was a milestone event in her life and she wanted to celebrate it with her big brother & hero by her side.

It took a couple of weeks for Shayne to warm up to the idea.  Once he did, he played the part like a true sport!  When Sabrina told him that it was customary for the Man of Honour to have a manicure and pedicure, Shayne looked a bit dubious and asked me if this was true.  With a straight face, I told him that it was indeed a key responsibility that he accompany the bride to the nail salon and participate in this ritual.  It was a memorable, happy afternoon as we watched Shayne go through his very first mani-pedi experience.  At one point, the nail technician brought something that resembled a cheese grater to work on Shayne’s feet.

 

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Man of Honour, Shayne, gets his nails done for the first time.

We are all taking bets on whether mani-pedi’s are going to be a regular part of Shayne’s beauty regimen – don’t be fooled by his tough exterior. We think he secretly enjoy it!

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Pre-Wedding Mani & Pedi

 

For the wedding day, I loved how Shayne prepared an emergency kit to manage any eventuality.  It consisted of bandaids, bobby pins, safety pins, a mirror, protein bars, bottled water, lip gloss, deodorant, q-tips, kleenex, eye drops, Advil, mints, make up kit, and a small amount of cash. I heard that many of these items came in handy that day.

This got me thinking.  If I had an emergency kit today, what would it consist of?  If I could have only one item in my kit, it would be a fully charged iPhone with WiFi access. From connecting to people and listening to music to navigating traffic and managing bank transactions, my iPhone has become my life. And when I need answers to questions, there is always Siri. It is a bit crazy – and scary – how one device can be so all-encompassing.

Other than my iPhone, there isn’t much, in the way of possession, that I need on a daily basis. I love my electric toothbrush and am partial to lip glosses and eye liners.  I take a heavy dose of vitamins every day.  I love my Magic Bullet and my green shakes to start the day (I am constantly stocking up on spinach, almond milk and bananas!).  There is a pair of shoes I love and I practically live in my Rockstar Jeans from Old Navy. I don’t leave home without applying Angel perfume. And I can never say no to a Whole Nut Cadbury chocolate bar.  Oh yes, I now need glasses to read.  So I might include these items in my Emergency Kit.

But the more I think about it, I have come to the conclusion that I would not fill my Emergency Kit with possessions, rather I would fill it with qualities.  At the bottom of the kit, I would have passion and purpose just as a reminder of how important these are to living  a fulfilling life.  I would definitely include courage and resilience to the kit because I realize, on a daily basis, how important it is to continue to flex my resilience muscles when life throws curveballs, as it invariably does from time to time.  At the top of my kit I would have patience and compassion because this is something I struggle with and need to work on consciously and continuously.  I find that I am always in such a hurry to get things done, that I don’t always see the impact of my actions on others.  I would line my Emergency Kit with hopefaith and community as a reminder of what is needed to go through life whole.

I imagine every person’s Emergency Kit would have different items.  Out of curiosity, what would your kit consist of?

 

 

 

Our Daughter Got Married Today

July 31, 2016

I have loved Sabrina every day of her life.  I remember how beautiful it felt to hold her in my arms for the first time, 28 years ago.   She clasped my finger with her tiny little hands and from that moment on, she captured our hearts, love and imagination.

As a child, Sabrina would rush into our room in the morning, climb up the exercise bike and jump on our bed while shouting at the top of her lungs, “Good Morning World.  It’s going to be a Fabulous Day!”  Her enthusiasm was contagious and her energy was boundless.  She taught us to play.  We have wonderful memories of 10-year old Sabrina organizing Friday night arts and crafts activities in the basement where she would be the teacher encouraging us to draw and paint, have tea parties with little cups and saucers, and read out stories aloud.  Her dreams were enormous and as we cuddled in bed together one day, I remember her telling me that she wanted to be a teacher on Monday, a doctor on Tuesday, an explorer on Wednesday, a scientist on Thursday, and a President on Friday. When I asked, “What about Saturdays and Sundays?” she promptly responded “A mommy!”

As a teenager, Sabrina lived in Shayne’s oversized, hand-me-down t-shirts and jerseys.  Her joy came from playing baseball, hockey and basketball.  I loved our “cuddle-cuddle” time and tucking her in every night.  I loved how she shared details of how her day went.   I remember asking her an endless stream of questions; listening to her talk about her dreams and hopes. Playfulness gave way to reflection, introspection and structure as she planned out her life.

As she became an adult, we could not keep track of all her wonderful accomplishments and we watched with wonder as she tackled one thing after another in her own quiet and humble way.  In the past year alone, Sabrina has been recognized by Elle Magazine as Canada’s Female Entrepreneur of the Year.  She wrote a speech for the Queen of Sweden at the UN.  She was featured in Vanity Fair and The Guardian.  And somehow, she found the time to turn down Harvard and graduate from Columbia with a Masters in Public Administration in Development Practice.

As a mom watching Sabrina grow up, I used to wonder who would possibly be special enough for her.  Who would be the one.   And for the longest time there wasn’t anyone she liked enough to date.  We had a standing joke that she was a late bloomer and that one day she would find her Prince Charming when she least expected it.  Then she met Afzal and told us that he was the one that made her soul dance.  This is before they had even started dating when she was moving halfway around the world to work in Kenya.  When we finally got to meet Afzal, we could see the attraction in the way they looked at each other, in the way they brought out the best in each other and in the way they just fit. We knew that the two of them were destined to be together

Today Sabrina married her Prince Charming, her soulmate, the love of her life, Afzal, in a beautiful ceremony where they pledged their love and promise to each other.

Sabrina – You are pretty much my most favourite person of all time, in the history of ever.  As you and Afzal begin your journey together we wish for you an outrageously brilliant future together filled with wonderful adventures and new paths to travel.  We wish for you your heart’s desire, every need met, every prayer answered and every dream come true.  And we pray that God’s grace and mercy always be with you.

To get a glimpse into the wedding ceremony, we invite you to watch the same-day-edit video below:

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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