Sisters From Another Mister…

Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Around The World (2012) | 21 comments

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.

A picture from the HIWC website of Anh Phan outside the K Hospital in Ha Noi

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.

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  1. I was at that bedside with you-positively glued to the screen allowing the tears that you had to hold back, to flow freely. I am touched by everything you described and this is timely for me. I did my volunteer rounds with the breast cancer patients at one of the finest cancer institutions in the entire world. Today. Hours ago. I sat with women whose surgeries were less than 24 hours ago. This just made me realize the bubble in which I reside is not available to so many others. Terri, thank you for posting this. The stark contrast. What a difference you made in the life of JUST ONE YOUNG PERSON today. You touched many, but today, my dear sweet friend, YOU MADE A BIG DIFFERENCE TO THAT GIRL. Be happy. I am proud to call you my friend.

    • AnneMarie. Thank you as always for your comment. I so appreciate having you along with me for the ride. It is so important for us to remember the world outside of North America, and it’s an honour and a privilege to be on this journey, in spite of some of the tougher days. Big hugs and chat soon. T xo

  2. We can’t imagine the kind of care and lack of care our sisters in other parts of the world are receiving. To think that some of these women have no family near by to support them or no money for treatment or food is beyond heartbreaking. I cry so easily… I don’t know that I could keep my composure.

    Prayers and blessings to you, sweet friend.


    • Thank you Brenda,
      I appreciate your comments and your support. It is heartbreaking. But, it’s great to find grassroots organizations that are making a difference and I’m look forward to supporting Anh at Sympameals in any ways I can. Prayers and blessings right back to you.
      Lots of love,

  3. Terri, thank you so much for posting this account of the reality of cancer treatment and options in less developed contexts. It is heart wrenching to see the difficulties in accessing treatment in many parts of the world. Traditional beliefs, cost and limited treatment options play such a part in cancer and its treatment experience, from what I have seen here. I have been running “breast cancer awareness” sessions with my work colleagues and it is humbling, frustrating and difficult as there is so much disparity. It is critical that we work to support change in this. I think it is probably time for me to write up my thoughts from those sessions too …..
    I feel so near yet so far, Terri – looking at all options to meet up with you. Thank you so much for highlighting this – your voice is critical.
    Love and hugs
    Philippa xox

    • Philippa,

      I applaud all of the work you are doing! Sometimes I’m sure it can feel so overwhelming, but I try to remember it’s about supporting one person at a time. I would LOVE to see you on the road. I’m feeling a little homesick this week, so it would be fantastic to see a friendly face. Big hugs and keep up all of the work you are doing. T. xo

  4. Dear Terri,
    You are a gifted writer my friend. When I read about your adventures, and the difference you’re making by following your dreams, I’m truly inspired. You are sharing compassion in it’s truest form–by sharing of your self and your time. What fabulous gifts to share with the world.
    Safe travels, love Sherry

    • Sherry,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. The work you continue to do inspires me too!

      Huge hugs from Vietnam,

  5. Absolutly incredible, Terri. Please keep bringing us these stories – they have so much power.

    • Catherine,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I so appreciate your support and am grateful to have you along (vicariously) on this journey.
      Big hugs from Vietnam!

  6. You inspire me, Terri. Thank you for being such a beautiful soul and for sharing your stories from around the globe. My breast cancer diagnosis and treatment occurred while I lived in Costa Rica, and although I was fortunate enough to be able to pay for some “private” medical care, much of my care was through the Caja, which is the Costa Rican public health care system. Often times, places were over crowded with long waits, and not enough staff to attend to patient needs. I found it depressing as hell. However, I was blessed to connect with other BC Sisters during those scary times and having that human connection was very integral to my recovery.

    Blessings to you for health, wellness and abundance sweet friend. Much love and light to you.

    • Thank you SO much for sharing your story. Would LOVE for you to write a guest post sometime, if you’re interested, to talk about your experience in Costa Rica. Will also be traveling there for the final leg of my volunteer trip in June and would love some insider info. When you have a few minutes, let’s connect over email: Thanks for your comments and big hugs to you from Vietnam! T xo

  7. This is an amazing journey, Terri. Thanks for taking us along with you through your writing and photos. It’s a big world out there, but breast cancer seems to tie us together. Love your sister title. So right. Looking forward to reading more.

    • Stacey – Thanks so much for your comment. It is always so great to connect with you and I’m happy to have you along for the ride. It has already been eye opening and impactful and we’ve only just begun!
      Chat soon,

  8. Really beautiful and moving post, Terri. And I love that you’re connecting with BC patients across the world. AND making a huge difference in their treatment and their lives by writing about their plight and helping the rest of us easily connect with them to offer financial support.

    Also really love this line: “Our stories may be different, but we are the same.” So true, whether you’re talking about the cancer patients you’ve met in Vietnam or the BC buddies each of us connects with every day via Twitter, Facebook or in-person support groups.

    Looking forward to reading more in days to come.

    Take care and safe travels,

    -Diane (@double_whammied)

    • Diane,
      Thank you so much for your comment. It means a lot to me and I’m so happy to have you along for the ride. We are ALL sisters and although I’m sure all of us would happily skip the BC part, I am so grateful for all of the beautiful friends it continues to bring into my life. Now, if only I could have some SITC stories to go the more intense stories of war and BC. But alas, no romantic adventures for me in Asia. Maybe I’ll have better luck on one of the other continents 😉
      Look forward to catching up soon. Love your writing and need to sign up for your blog so I can stay in the loop via email as I don’t have enough time online to check out everyone’s sites.
      Chat soon,

  9. I have nothing to say with the exception of the fact that this post was very beautiful. I am glad you have this opportunity and I am glad that you understand how incredible it is.

    • Thank you so much Liz. It IS an incredible opportunity and I’m grateful for it every day! Can’t wait to catch up in NYC sometime soon!

  10. Hi Terri, the way you tell this story is so beautiful ! If only the subject matter was not awful as cancer ! I previously lived in Vietnam and came into contact with Sympa meals an organisation I believe in 1000% ! I am now in singpore and in 2 weeks will hold a morning tea fundraiser specifically for the kids ward but also to help raise awareness of Sympa and was wondering if could please have permission to print and use your storey for the women to read ? Such a basic need and one we all take for granted and gift that can be given to these people with so little from us – thanks Kylie

    • Kylie,

      Wonderful to hear from you and congrats on the important work you are doing. I would love to have you share this story. Sympa meals is on of my favourite NGOS and I would love to do anything that supports their important work. Best of luck and take good care of yourself! Terri

      • Thanks Terri – I am so inspired by their work as is my brother who is currently in Hanoi and support sympas patient by creating photo packs for families at risk of loosing their kids !!! I just get more inspired when so much can be done for so little – keep up your great work and so wonderful to read of positive journeys x


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