I knew my life was going to change, but not this way. My plan includes choosing my decade-long life in New York City and moving it to the other side of the world.
The first two months were occupied with logistics – finding an apartment, figuring out how to pay utility bills, and figuring out which bus route was the best way to get to the CNN office every day. Tired of going to sightseeing places, I told myself that once I settled into my new place I could throw myself into getting to know the city.
I found the apartment. And then shortly after moving in, I found something else – a lump in my right breast. It seemed A large, flat, heavy rock sprouted inside me.
Mammograms, ultrasound, biopsy, results, referral – appointments were made over the course of a week. Before anyone tells me I know what it is. I knew in my deepest self that it was like knowing I was in love.
On CNN Hong Kong Day Holiday party, I got the news I was expecting – Phase 2b, requiring six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation. I told my parents, 13 hour time difference, by email.
My sister, who had never set foot in Asia before, left the US in early January to be with me for the first two weeks of my treatment. Upon arrival, Jett pulled out of a Raleigh – San Francisco – Tokyo – Hong Kong trip for an entire day, and she went into my apartment and went straight to clean up the vomit.
Before cancer, I wasn’t a fan of inspirational quotes or go-get-em-tiger speeches. After cancer, I am not there yet. But the one thing that made my disease go was to let go of some of my insecurities.
When I was self-conscious I had no choice but to hide away. The guy I bathed as a toddler now sees me throwing it 20 times a day, and she’s not judging me. By the time I was diagnosed, a third of Hong Kong’s medical staff seemed to see me as topless. With mouth ulcers, hemorrhoids, nausea and muscle cramps – soon my friends will find me in a very vulnerable state.
When I sent my sister back home, I didn’t know I was running an invisible clock. Everybody.
Virus outside, disease inside
Within a few weeks of my treatment, we started hearing news in the workplace that a new virus was passing through China. Our bureau chief sent all of us to work from our small high-rise flats. All public Lunar New Year events in the city have been canceled.
At the time, many Hongkongers – myself included – felt that city officials were overly concerned with how badly SARS was handled. People do not wear masks unless they are sick, there are no mandatory temperature checks and most businesses are open.
Many friends plan trips to Hong Kong to visit and help me. As the coronavirus crashed and Asia began to lock itself in, each of the flights was canceled individually.
My hair started to fall into chemo for two weeks around the Lunar New Year. I decided to bite the bullet and shave it all off. Every salon in my neighborhood is closed – I thought it was because of the holiday, because everyone in the city gets a week’s vacation – except for a barbershop. The barber saw a woman go in and hurried. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Cantonese, so we communicated through the Google Translate app on my phone.
Author at Jade Market in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Courtesy Lilith Marcus
“It’s bad to cut your hair on New Year’s Eve,” he re-typed.
“I already have bad luck,” I replied. When he shakes his head again, I pull out the characters for “Cancer.” He immediately came back to work.
Ten minutes later, I was bald. The barber didn’t charge me.
“I’m sorry” typed. That was one of the hundreds of times I heard those words over the next six months. I couldn’t articulate it yet, and I wasn’t sorry. I felt so lucky. We are fortunate to have health care, a supportive Hong Kong community – many of whom are CNN colleagues I just met – and have a good long-term prognosis. Sure, it felt surreal. But in 2020, everything felt surreal.
I was thinking about how to explain my new look to everyone in the office, but Coronavirus made that irrelevant. As the virus spread, our bureau decided to shut down indefinitely.
This unique Hong Kong tour gives travelers the opportunity to take a closer look at some of the world’s busiest ports.
My travel itch is also when I sleep 10 or 12 hours a day Still wanted to be scratched. I wanted to take advantage of Hong Kong’s central location and excellent airport as a way to explore more destinations in Asia, and as editor of CNN’s Travel Department, I hoped to report from different regions. In the US, it is common for me to travel at least once a month. Suddenly, it was no longer an option for me – or anyone.
Covid-19 is the perfect cover for illness. My oncologist told me to wear my masks, use a hand sanitizer and protect myself after my immunity was damaged, and then the whole city seemed to have cancer with me at night. None of my co-workers knew that I was answering emails from my oncologist’s office instead of my desk, or that my lively social media status was mostly smoke and mirrors. The expensive wig I picked for office wear occasionally appeared on zoom calls. Contact-free grocery delivery has become ideal as the coronavirus continues. And sometimes, sometimes, there are whole days when I forget that I am sick.
Although I have not been able to backpack through Laos or chill out on the beach in Bali, I have had the gift of knowing my new home better than I could. One weekend, our team tackled the famous dragon’s back hike in the southwest of Hong Kong Island. Eventually, we arrived at a beach that was already warm enough to be in the water even though it was March. I brought a bathing hat for this special occasion, but instead I took it off and jumped into the sea of baldness and joy.
This year, I learned the word jaws or luck. A colleague I trusted brought some red jazz paper Printed with flowers and pineapples – to symbolize growth and prosperity – as a New Year’s gift. You want to burn this as an offering to your ancestors, but I don’t have the heart to do it and have it hung on the wall of my apartment instead. I felt like I was living in the eyes of a hurricane. In a city of seven and a half million people, only four are infected. My Hong Kong bubble was full of jazz.
Finding happiness in a place that is not unexpected
People think cancer makes you smarter. Seeing all TV martyrs thin and pale, bald, saintly, silently conveys life lessons before dying – Dr. Mark Green on ER, who died greatly on a beach trip in the hands of his lover, was my first pop culture experience with cancer.
There is something about looking closely at your own mortality that makes you deeply. But the truth is that sometimes people get sick. Good people get sick and stay well. Rude people are sick and vulgar.
This is one reason why I do not want to share my diagnosis with people, especially once the coronavirus has raged. Internet commentators have argued about whether the coronavirus is real or “deserves” to get it. Despite the relative safety of Hong Kong and the masks with everyone, I felt a little insane every time I walked out of my apartment. It is better to be sick in secret than to live in vulnerability in public.
In April, when I was four months into chemo, Hong Kong recorded new coronavirus cases for a week straight. The restrictions placed on it slowly began to lift. Restaurants can again fill capacity as long as the dividers are placed between the tables and the maximum group sizes go from four people to eight people.
If you ask me a year ago, I was expecting my big move to Hong Kong, and I talked about all the cool travels in Asia and the crazy adventures I was going to have. City. As life and expression go, what happens when you are busy making other plans.
Being sick during the coronavirus, and still getting top-notch medical care and living my life, reminded me that there is happiness every day. Being able to do grocery shopping for myself is a gift. Going out for a walk is something to celebrate instead of a mundane task. Cancer showed me that sleeping at night and knowing that you woke up again in the morning was a strange, fascinating miracle.
Asons towels have been replaced. The sun rises and sets at dawn. My tumor had shrunk so much that I was scheduled for lumpectomy instead of mastectomy. The kids went back to school. And life, as it does, continues to move.