Sisters From Another Mister…
Peeling yellow paint hangs from the gritty cement walls and I look down just in time to step over a puddle of muddy liquid on the worn landing. As we pass through the congested doorway and onto the third floor, I bite down hard on my lip so my chin won’t drop. The last thing I want is to look like a stereotypical Westerner with pity pooling in my eyes at the site of circumstances far different from my own.
I look to the right and a man, barely more than a boy, lies on a splintered bench that hangs at an awkward slope from its hinges. He stares at a point in the distance as a bottle, hooked on a nail overhead, dispenses what I assume to be chemo drugs down the length of the dirty wall and into his waiting vein. An old man in black plastic sandals scuffs towards the bright fluorescent lights of the communal bathroom. Instead of an IV pole to rest against, he leans heavily on the middle aged woman beside him. His caregiver holds the bottle high in the air, like a flag, as they continue their slow march through the crowd.
Then, a woman with a telltale lopsided chest stops my host, Mrs. Anh Phan of Sympameals. Anh immediately crouches down to remove a notebook from her handwoven bag and it seems that everyone else except this patient disappears from her view. As I hover in the background, I don’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand the patient’s anxious request or Anh’s gentle response. This woman is probably hoping to be one of the “lucky” breast cancer patients who will receive a subsidy from Sympameals. Not only has Mrs. Anh Phan (along with her husband) started an organization that provides 180 meal vouchers everyday to ensure that the most destitute cancer patients at K hospital get access to at least 1 nutritious meal per day. She also, in partnership with the Hanoi International Women’s Club, gives $150 subsidies to 10 breast cancer patients in the greatest need each month. Many of these women have had to leave the fields, and their only source of income, in order to seek treatment. For so many living in rural Vietnam, a lack of awareness and screening options means that breast cancer is often discovered very late. The expense and inconvenience of treatment can often prove too much for their husbands and many of these women are abandoned, with no way to support themselves, and no money to pay for either treatment or food. Sympameals is a grassroots organization that is feeding these women and giving them hope, when they have nowhere else to turn. It is an honour and a privilege to be here today to see the compassion Anh shares with each patient.
When Anh stands, the patient motions for us to follow, The scent of stale rice, musty blankets, and dried sweat presses up against me and I shiver in spite of the humidity of the day. I hurry to keep up as we wind past stretchers laid out in the hallway, past whole families crowded onto benches, and past cubbies stacked with blankets, cooking pots, and wicker baskets.
We stop in front of a young woman who is lying on a faded lounger in the hallway. Two older, cap-wearing fellow patients hover over her like nervous hens; their brows furrowed and their faces filled with concern. Anh sinks down to perch on the side of the stretcher and holds the young patient’s hand. The women looks up at me and I can almost feel the fatigue in the slowness of her movements as she reaches up to tug her hat a little lower to hide her bald head. As she struggles to catch her breath, I watch the chemo drugs drip into her veins and have a flashback to a day 2 years ago when the same drugs dripped into mine. The staccato conversation before me continues until the patient looks from Anh to me and her eyes shift from dark to light. She points to my hair and her features melt into a beautiful smile.
Anh turns to me and says, “I told her that you also had breast cancer and survived it and she will too.”
Too soon, we have to leave, but I crouch down beside the woman and for a moment have the opportunity to hold her hand. It takes everything in me to hold back my tears. In this moment, it does not matter that we speak different languages and come from very different circumstances. In this moment, we are simply two sisters who share the same disease. Our stories may be different, but we are the same.
The time I spent with Anh of Sympameals left me deeply inspired by the difference one person can make. I saw the tears of gratitude from three women who received this month’s subsidy and I felt honoured to meet Anh and further understand the critical work she and her team are doing for cancer patients here in Ha Noi, Vietnam.
To all of my breast cancer sisters who may not have the means or opportunity to travel around the world, but want to give back in a tangible way, here is something we can all do. Consider joining SympaMeals on Facebook and making a contribution to your sisters on the other side of the world. Your sisters who know nothing about a world of pink ribbons and the over commercialization of breast cancer. Your sisters who simply need food to eat and money to move forward from a disease that still has stigma and disfigurement attached to it.
It’s currently 4:30am and although I wanted to post this last night, the Internet was down and I still have no access to Facebook. Ahh the joys of technology and travel.
Today, I will take a 16 hour train to Da Nang to celebrate Lunar New Year with my host family and then on to Ho Chi Minh City where I will spend time in a pediactric oncology hospital as well as meet with people working in the breast cancer world. A huge thank you to GeoVisions for helping make my experience in Vietnam memorable and moving. And, an even bigger thank you to CLOUDInc, GO Overseas and to all of you. I am so grateful to almost be at 50% of my fundraising goal because of your generosity. Your contributions have made it possible for me to crouch down in a hospital and connect with a breast cancer sister on the other side of the world and hopefully, even if only for a fleeting moment, help her feel less alone.