• Baljit Khamba, ND, M.PH

Lessons from my Grandmother: The Sister-versary of Cancer.

Today (May 14, 2020) it has been exactly one year since I received my diagnosis of locally advanced stage, triple negative breast cancer, with 3 tumours in my left breast. While other anniversaries have more clear cut emotions tied to them, this one seems to be a bit more confusing. I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to feel. Do I celebrate it, cry, fly into a fit of rage?


To add to my confusion, my thoughts and emotions kept going in a multitude of directions. Lately, and somewhat oddly, I noticed I'm appreciative that my maternal grandmother who passed away 3 years ago didn't witness me going through cancer while she was alive. I've written in the past about my paternal grandmother, whom I'd never met but inherited the very thing she passed away from, breast cancer from our shared BRCA-1 gene. However, it was my maternal grandmother, or 'Mama' as my family called her, who has been more on my mind these days.


Mama was very close to all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A true matriarch, unabashedly dictating how we ought to be running our family, being tightly involved with all the details of our lives and truly perhaps the happiest person I've ever known. When I try to recall her voice, I can hear it with a close echo of her infectious laughter trailing within the recesses of my mind. Memories of her conversations are forever linked with compassion and mirth. I've been examining parts of her life and comparing them to my own, as I reflect on this past year.




My earliest memories of her were when she first arrived to Canada with my grandfather and mammaji (maternal uncle) from India when I was 5 years old and she was probably around 55 years old. At that time my 2 year old brother was gravely ill with bacterial meningitis and my mother was mainly attending to him at the The Hospital for Sick Children in downtown Toronto. Thankfully, despite being critically ill, my brother made a full recovery. While that had been going on, my grandmother, new to the country took on the responsibility of caring for me, and as such I developed a close bond with her.


Throughout the years, as they moved into their own home, I remember that my brother and I would stay with my grandparents and mummaji often, especially over the weekends. We would walk to the nearby park, which held as much excitement for us as it did my grandparents. While we tumbed, ran and played, my grandparents were forming their communities. Other immigrant families, mainly the Indian, would gather, men on one side of the park playing cards, and women on the other gossiping and laughing over the day's events in their respective homes.


Whenever I recall memories of those times, I see my grandmother in the middle of those circles, counselling the women, learning from them and most importantly she would facilitate strength in each one of them. They were all her 'panjis or theea' (sisters) and she loved them all. As a sign of respect, the younger men and women all referred to her as 'Massiji' (maternal aunt), despite not being related to her, to show that they considered her as a mother-figure. A true extrovert, she gained her happiness when she was surrounded by people.


She was the same with my eclectic group of friends who represented the cultural mosaic that is Toronto and the GTA. Language never proved a barrier for her, between piecing together the few words of broken English she knew, hand gestures, energy and passion all spoke volumes. No one misunderstood what she was trying to convey and everyone recognized the joy she held.


As I look throughout this past year, I recognize that I had learned an incredibly valuable lesson from my grandmother, the power of sister-hood from my kindred spirits (I'm a huge Anne of Green Gables fan), and my soul-sisters. I burst into tears reflecting back on the meaningful display of linked courage and support that the women (and men, who are like sisters to me) community of my life have bestowed. Never in my life had I understood the power of their love and commitment, until it came to this journey. I can't begin to fathom how I'd ever completely repay any of it either.


Here are a collection of my circle of paanjis and how they travelled on this path with me. Each of them represented an element of endurance within the circle and how collectively we all came together. As such, they will forever be etched into the very tapestry of my being:


One of the first people I phone after being diagnosed was Mantreh and vividly recall hearing her cries of disbelief and sadness echoing in my ear as I told her I have cancer. We shared my fears and terror in what was to come. She was a new mom and had just celebrated her little one's first birthday. Yet, she travelled with her family out from Philadelphia to join me during the start of my chemo journey and stayed with my family at the hospital while I was in surgery. Through her tireless efforts she is my confidant and my anchor. My words cannot ever fully express what that means to me. Mantreh has represented consciousness and heart fibers of my path.


I reached out to Maral, who was still in Doha and about to travel back to Toronto for the summer. She carried my pain through her and we sobbed together as I told her. Throughout my journey, she would travel with her 7 month old and 2 year old in tow from Newmarket to Brampton to give me Bowen treatment, hold my hand, listen to me, attend my appointments, and provide encouragement. I look to her and admire her for the resilience and truth. Recently, she's started me on a path of a Deepak Chopra 21 day meditation, which came at a welcomed time in my life. Maral represents the energy of my path.


One of the first people I went to see after I was diagnosed was Sylvi, I sat on her sofa in a state of shock and disbelief of what was to come. I needed the hope for the future and acceptance of what was happening. Whenever I needed a cry, Sylvi would hold me in her arms and cry with me. When I was angry, she created a space for that anger and when I needed to be uplifted, I would admire my sister's strength and look to her for focus. Sylvi represents the muscles of my path.


I've always felt a spiritual connection to Ellen, her and I seem to operate on similar energetic wavelengths. When the world of cancer became too chaotic, I went to Ellen for direction and grounding. We were able to collectively move through paths that are unseen, she supports me through an energetic realm, which was a key piece to my healing. Ellen represents the spirituality of my path.


My classmates from school came together and engaged with me in providing support through a multitude of ways such as, helping me combat side-effects as I went through chemotherapy, by sending me pictures of their families, sending words of support, and even starting a Calgary team for the CIBC Run for the Cure. They aided in proving to me that distance and time may separate us, but we will forever remain connected to each other.


After coming face-to-face with my mortality, I immediately felt a need to reach out to those who had significantly influenced me throughout my life. I wasn't sure what my cancer path held and whether I would live. However, I had this strong desire from within me to connect with my mentors. I immediately reached out to two teachers of mine, whom I had looked up to. Firstly, Laura, who was my English teacher and she ran the drama club throughout my high school years. She had been an insightful person who saw me through my shyness and insecurities. She displayed confidence and yet was nutrutring to those who, like me, were unsure of themselves. It was through admiration of her strength, that fostered my desire for also wanting to empower other women.


The other teacher I reached out to was Ian, who was my music teacher from when I was 7 years old to when I graduated in OAC (Grade 13). Through his passion for music, I developed a keen appreciation for various composers, styles of music and the grit to learn how to work through complicated sheet music. I had been in our high school band, and can vividly recall a tingling sensation on my skin and an awakening within my core whenever our entire band would come together and play a piece well, whether it was Hawaii 5-0 or a compilation from John Williams.


These were the two people who strongly influenced my desire to teach, so that I may empower my students, as they had once done for me. Throughout my diagnosis, both Laura and Ian checked in with me, allowed me the space to express my vulnerability and encouraged me to recovery. I felt like connecting with my teachers was a way for me to once again reach out and seek direction again. My teachers represented the light of my cancer journey.


I also had dear friends and family from my various circles, both men and women, who had communicated their care through phone calls, texts, emails, offering their homes for when I needed a place to rest, visiting me throughout my cancer journey, joining me in Mississauga for our team's CIBC Run for the Cure. Looking back now, I found everyone's connection to be profoundly endearing. All of you represent the backbone or spine of my journey. You all helped keep me upright and going.


These various components that each person represented in my cancer journey were the very factors that helped bring me to today's anniversary. They all felt like spokes on a wheel, each intricately connected to one another and to the entire wheel. This circle of encouragement, hope, laughter, and love is what I hope to remember the most from this past year.


So, thank you dear Mama, while you weren't here physically to go through this time with me, your lessons, of solidarity and respect taught that when one of our sisters needs help, we all bear together to assist her in shining through. My way all live life in the circle of our dear sisters. Happy Sister-versary my loves.


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