I had cancer in the middle of a coronavirus epidemic

Hong Kong (CNN) – I moved in Hong Kong on the day of the great protest marking China National Day on October 1 and I thought it would probably be the craziest experience I would have had all year. Two months later, during Hanukkah, I learned I had breast cancer. So while the global coronavirus crisis was the most challenging thing that happened to almost everyone else on the planet in 2020, it barely made it into my top five.

I knew my life was going to change, but not this way. My plan was to pick up my life for decades in New York and move it to the other side of the world.

The first two months were preoccupied with logistics – finding an apartment, figuring out how to pay utility bills, learning which bus route was best for coming to the CNN office every day. Too exhausted for sightseeing, I told myself that when I settled into my new place, I would be able to get to know the city seriously.

I found an apartment. And then soon after moving, I found something else – a lump in my right breast. He felt like a large, flat, heavy stone peered through me overnight.

Within a week there was a bunch of appointments – mammography, ultrasound, biopsy, results, referral. But I knew what it was before anyone told me. I knew it in my deepest self, as I knew I was in love.

On CNN Day from Hong Kong holiday party, I got the news I was expecting – phase 2B, which required six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation. I told my parents, 13 hours apart, via email.

My sister, who had never traveled to Asia before, flew out of the U.S. to be the first two weeks of my treatment in early January. After he arrived, a jet shot from the all-day Raleigh-San Francisco-Tokyo-Hong Kong road, she entered my apartment and went straight to clean up the vomit.

Before cancer, I wasn’t a person who liked inspirational quotes or go-get-‘em-tiger speeches. After the cancer, I still wasn’t. But one thing my illness did was to let go of some of my insecurities.

There was no more possibility of hiding when I felt self-conscious. The person I used to bathe with as a child now watched me push myself 20 times a day, and she didn’t judge me for it. When I made the diagnosis, I felt that it was easy for a third of the medical staff from Hong Kong to see that I was distracted. And soon friends would see me in their most vulnerable states — with mouth sores, hemorrhoids, nausea, and muscle stiffness — and they still wanted to hang out with me.

When I sent my sister home, I didn’t know I was racing an invisible clock. We all were.

Virus on the outside, disease on the inside

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A few weeks after my treatment, we started hearing news in the office about a new virus breaking through China. The head of our office sent us to work from our tiny high-rise apartments. All public events in the Lunar New Year in the city have been canceled.

At the time, many Hong Kongers – myself included – thought city officials were overly cautious about the ill-treatment of SARS. People did not wear masks unless they were sick, there were no mandatory temperature checks, and most companies remained open.

Several friends planned visits to Hong Kong to visit me and help. But as the coronavirus repented and Asia began to close, each flight was canceled one by one.

My hair started falling out two weeks after chemotherapy, around Lunar New Year. I decided to just bite the bullet and shave it. Every salon in my neighborhood was closed – I assumed because of the holidays, because everyone in town has a week off – except for one barber shop. The barber looked confused and surprised to see a woman enter. He didn’t speak English, nor did I speak Cantonese, so we communicated via the Google Translate app on my phone.

Author at Jade Market in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Courtesy of Lilith Marcus

“It’s bad luck that you cut your hair during the New Year,” he typed.

“I’m already unlucky,” I replied. When he no longer shook his head, I attracted the characters because of the “cancer”. He immediately nodded and started working.

Ten minutes later I was bald. The barber didn’t charge me.

“I’m sorry,” he wrote. That would be one of the hundreds of times I’ve heard those words in the next six months. Yet what I have not yet been able to articulate is that I am not sorry. I felt happy. Luckily I have health care, I have a supportive Hong Kong community – many of whom were CNN colleagues I just met – and I have a good long-term prognosis. Of course, he felt surreal. But in 2020, everything felt surreal.

I wondered how I would explain my new look to everyone in the office, but the coronavirus made it irrelevant. Our office decided to stay indefinitely while the virus spread.

This special tour of Hong Kong gives travelers the opportunity to take a closer look at one of the busiest ports in the world.

A travel editor who does not travel

Even when I was tossing and turning 10 or 12 hours a day, the trip itches still wanted to be scratched. I planned to use Hong Kong’s central location and excellent airport as a way to explore more places in Asia, and as the editor of CNN’s travel section, I also hoped to report from a variety of locations. In the US, it was normal to fly at least once a month. Suddenly it was no longer an option for me – for anyone.

Another friend who recently moved from the US to Hong Kong became my partner in the local adventures we organized every time I felt good enough to go out. We transported ferries to the nearby islets, Po Toi and Cheung ChauAlthough museums and other businesses were closed, we had to choose from a rich life outdoors in Hong Kong. We went for walks, we swam in the ocean, we climbed hills, we explored temples.

Ironically, Covid-19 was the perfect cover for the disease. My oncologist told me to wear masks, use hand sanitizers, and protect myself when my immune system was compromised, and then overnight, it was like the whole town had cancer along with me. None of my colleagues knew that I was answering emails from the oncologist’s office instead of my desk or that my cheerful statuses on social media were mostly smoke and mirrors. The expensive wig I chose for office attire only occasionally appeared on Zoom calls. Contactless food delivery became the norm as the coronavirus continued. And sometimes, just sometimes, whole days passed when I forgot I was sick.

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Although I couldn’t backpack across Laos or cool off on the beach in Bali, I was given the gift to get to know my new home better than I expected. One weekend, a group of us embarked on the famous Dragon Back expedition to the southwestern part of Hong Kong Island. We finally arrived at the beach and despite it being March, it was already warm enough to get into the water. I brought a bathing cap just for this special occasion, but instead I drove it and jumped, bald and blissful, into the sea.

This year I learned the word joss, or happiness. A colleague I confided in brought some red paper written with flowers and pineapple – to represent growth and progress – as a New Year’s gift. You should have set it on fire as an offer for your ancestors, but I didn’t have the heart to do it and instead hung it on the wall of my apartment. I felt like I was living in the eye of a hurricane. In a city of seven and a half million people, only four have died from the virus. My Hong Kong bubble was full of yose.

Finding joy in an unexpected place

People think cancer makes you wise. Just look at all the TV martyrs thin and pale, bald and saintly, giving life lessons before you die – Dr. Mark Greene of ER, who died noble on the beach in the arms of his lover, was my first experience of pop culture from cancer.

There is something in the close-up appearance from your own mortality that should make you deep. But the truth is that sometimes people just get sick. Beautiful people get sick and stay beautiful. Rude people get sick and stay rude.

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That was one of the reasons I was reluctant to share my diagnosis with people, especially after the coronavirus came. Internet commentators debated whether the coronavirus was real or who “deserved” to get it. Despite the relative security of Hong Kong, with everyone in masks, I still felt slightly paranoid every time I left my apartment. It’s better to be sick in secret, I thought, than to live in public.

In April, when I was on four months of chemotherapy, Hong Kong recorded a week without a single new case of coronavirus. The restrictions imposed began to rise slowly. Restaurants could be refilled as long as they set up dividers between the tables, and the maximum crowded sizes range from four to eight people.

The city woke up, and so did I. My hair grew slowly, in spots – first my legs, eyebrows, armpits. I watched videos cancer patients in American bells to celebrate their last chemo session. But all I wanted to do was go out into the light as if it were an ordinary Wednesday. Sometimes it feels like all the time I had cancer I had a weird dream. The world closed, I locked myself in my apartment and everything stood still. It got too hot to wear a wig, so I was just starting to be bald in public. Occasionally people stared, but most of the time everyone treated me like a woman, who simply happened to have no hair.

If you had asked me a year ago what I expected my big move to Hong Kong to look like, I would have talked about all the nice trips I’ve embarked on in Asia and the crazy adventures I’ll embark on in the City. But life, as the term says, happens when you are busy making other plans.

Getting sick during the coronavirus and still being able to provide top-notch medical care and live life reminded me that there is joy in everyday life. The possibility of food products for themselves was a gift. Going for a walk was something to celebrate, not an everyday task. Cancer showed me what a strange, lovely miracle it is to sleep at night and discover that you woke up again in the morning.

The seasons have changed. The sun rose and set. My tumor shrunk so much that I was scheduled for a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. The children returned to school. And life, as it usually does, kept moving.

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