(Bloomberg) -- Saima Thompson was running a Pakistani restaurant with her mother in southeast London and had started a new bar business with a friend when she began suffering from upper back pain and fatigue.
The diagnosis? Stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer.
She was 29 years old and told she had six to 12 months to live. That was in April 2018 and she is still very much alive and positive even as she undergoes a second round of chemotherapy treatments and takes drugs to manage the pain.
Now 31, she’s juggling a busy working life at the family restaurant, Masala Wala Cafe in Brockley, with encouraging debate about cancer in the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in which she initially found there was little understanding or communication.
“It took me quite some time to absorb the information when I was diagnosed,” she says. “I thought it was an old man’s disease, and I was so young. I’d just got the flow of running the restaurant with my mother, just getting the hang of things, and I had just opened the new place. All these dreams and aspirations and, obviously, they all came crashing down.
“I actually had quite irrational thoughts. One of the first things I thought was, `No one’s going to come to my restaurant: I’ve got lung cancer. That’s disgusting.’ So it was quite a big process for me to digest. I actually suffered post-traumatic stress with the diagnosis.
“There is a lot of stigma and a lot of unspoken conversations” (in the Asian community). “My mother didn’t know what cancer meant, for instance. She came here in the’ 80s (from Pakistan). She never, ever had health awareness amongst her community, amongst her friends, amongst her family. And then when I turned to the online community, I saw there was literally nobody online, people of color, talking about these issues. Black, Asian. There was a very big lack of conversation.”
Thompson then discovered a group called Black Women Rising, aimed at creating more cancer awareness in the BAME community.
“I jumped on that campaign because there’s no Brown Women Rising,” she says. “And I started thinking, Where are all the Asians?” So she started her own blog, Curry and Cancer, in August 2018, talking about her experiences and connecting with more women.
“There’s a range of issues with black and Asian – ethnic minorities. I have family members saying, `Oh don’t worry. We’re not going to tell anybody.’ Again, very isolating and it is something I am not embarrassed about. I shouldn’t have to hide. So me speaking outwardly, and blogging, for me the blogging was a very good therapy process, just to be seen and heard and not feel alone. And especially with a life-changing illness such as cancer to not feel alone is very important. It can be such an isolating condition.
“I just started a BAME Cancer Support network on Facebook. It’s a private group in which anybody from the black and Asian ethnic minority going through cancer can share their stories confidentially. And that was important for me. Because I had people reaching out to me and I was a bit overwhelmed so I thought let’s set up this group so I can send people that way and then through that group so many friendships have formed. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.”
Thompson is still keenly involved with her mother and sister at the Masala Wala Cafe, which aims to showcase the best of traditional Pakistani cuisine, and she projects an energy and positivity that’s humbling to those of us who have been luckier with their health. (She suffered a miscarriage shortly before her diagnosis). She is fun to be with, but concedes that while 2018 wasn’t a good year, 2019 was no better. So what is her outlook?
“I’ve outlived my prognosis,” she says. “I was given six to 12 months at the time, in April 2018. And I’ll be looking at my two-year `cancerversary’ in April this year. So I am living well and I feel I am doing a good job. I am doing the best that I can. I feel well in myself. There have been times of chronic pain. Even now, I am on pain management drugs, but I have a good quality of life and that is all I can ask for at this stage. I am looking at prolonging my life as long as I can. And living well with it, comfortably.
“We’ve all come together as a family through this diagnosis. It was a big blow but we are finding our feet. It’s becoming the new normal for us. Traumatic things happen in life and it’s how you deal with it. I’ve reached out. I wanted to put my story out there.”
Richard Vines is the Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and Instagram @richard.vines.
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