Fierce Love

October 3, 2011

I arrived in China only two weeks ago, but it does feel like a lifetime has passed from kissing David goodbye in Boston to sitting here at my desk tonight after yet another full day of ozone, sonophotodynamic therapy (SPDT), Chinese medicine infusion, blood tests, and an appointment with the Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor who declared my yang is weak and that I need to eat meat. I’ve now heard this from four doctors. So very Chinese. And maybe true?

Landing in southern China without knowing a single word of the language, checking in to the oncology floor of a hospital and immediately beginning a whirlwind of tests, trying to find some morsel of food to eat that would please, nourish, and treat my digestion kindly, and realizing that the two months of treatment I had planned for is actually three months, was a bit like being thrown into the deep end of the pool with no goggles or nose plugs, or towel to dry you off. Luckily, thanks to my dad, I have plenty of experience with the sink-or-swim approach to life. The very first day I had my learner’s permit, my father ordered me behind the wheel and off we drove on two of Philadelphia’s most treacherous highways.

Each day, more and more, little by little, I’m learning to surrender. When I long for home, I remind myself of my purpose. When I crave fresh air and the beauty of the New England autumn, I tap into my motivation. And when I ache to hold my children, to feel the soft skin of their cheeks, or for the luxury of wanting to talk to David and simply walking into the next room to find him there, I tell myself that I have come here for cancer treatment. And not just any treatment. I’ve flown halfway around the world for Dr. Wang and his innovations.

My first week at Renkang Hospital was sort of like orientation week. The college analogy strangely fit. The first few days, as Sara and I decorated my hospital room with photos and sarongs and Indian tapestries, and met the other patients on the hall, we kept commenting on how it felt like our freshman year at Brandeis all over again. Unpacking my massive bags, I felt an odd giddiness, wanting to share with Terri and Tricia down the hall all the loot I had brought from home: coveted jars of almond butter, packages of organic nori, bags of quinoa. But that’s where the analogy begins and ends. Soon I became a pincushion for the nurses: blood tests and ivs for Cat Scans and ultrasounds. They tested my heart, they checked my urine and stool. I met doctors. I met nurses. I couldn’t remember anyone’s name, and all the nurses looked so much alike in their white pants suits, caps, hair pulled back into buns affixed with blue bows, and sterile masks hiding their faces.

After two weeks I know a bit more. I quickly came to recognize FeFe, a small nurse with a pretty face and a tiger-like attitude. I know YaTing, with her gentle eyes and quick laugh. Of course I know Sophie, who speaks English and is having some trouble with her boyfriend at the moment. They are all so young, and so sweet. Twice a week they take English class with one of the translators. The nurses and doctors were in uproarious laughter over a game of Simon Says, as in “Simon Says touch your head, touch your mouth, your nose…”. And now all the nurses are selecting English names to help us dimwitted Westerners since they think their Chinese names are too difficult for our English tongues. To my entirely ignorant eye and ear, Chinese is impossibly complex and impenetrable. I don’t know how a population of 1 billion manages to speak, read, and write it so fluently. So now the 15th floor nurses’ station is populated with Eve, Nikki, Linda, Joyce, and Ava.

This afternoon Ping, our SPTD nurse, stopped by my room to help me buy a digital camera through a Chinese web site. She had changed out of her white hospital uniform and was wearing a long cotton green skirt and a white t-shirt. She looked so pretty, and so impossibly young. In her white nurse’s uniform she is transformed into an efficient and capable nurse who’s job it is to find a vein for the large ozone needle, and then to help us in the ultrasound bath and light bed. But this young woman in my room could have been a friend from college – no, high school she looks so young. As I was hooked up to my Chinese medicine drip and resting in bed, she parked herself next to me on the double bed, flipped open her laptop and furiously began researching cameras for me. She was doing the Chinese version of instant-messaging with a friend while talking to her boyfriend on her cell.

As I lay there with the curtains drawn, my eyes closed, so tired from the day’s treatments, I felt Ping’s vibrancy and youthful energy brighten the room, making the molecules of the air more buoyant. For a moment, we were two girlfriends just hanging out together, engaged in our separate universes but having a good time just because we were together. And then I remembered the drip. I remembered that I’m nearly old enough to be Ping’s mother. I remembered that I’m thousands of miles away from home. I remembered cancer.

It sneaks in like that sometimes. Most of the time, even while attached 24/7 to a bottle of chemotherapy, I feel surprisingly normal. In the morning I stretch and do sit-ups. Sometimes I do pranayama breath practice and then meditate. This morning, with my chemo bottle and iPod snuggled up together in my fanny pack, I did Balinese shaking for 30 minutes on the balcony. I ate a great breakfast of muesli, yogurt, and orange slices. The first week I arrived here I realized I had to let go of my strict diet or else I would starve and be miserable. Oranges! Grapefruit! Bananas! What joy after nearly a year and a half of not having fruit. Then I put on music and danced while the cleaning woman called “Auntie” stripped my bed and remade it with a fresh set of pink gingham sheets. Did I mention that my room looks nothing like a typical hospital room?

While this is a cancer floor and we are all here for the same reason, the mood on the hall is so positive. The doctors and nurses are all very upbeat, but not in a sugary annoying placating kind of way. The truth is it’s rather refreshing that I can’t understand most of the nurses. I don’t get those painful looks of sympathy when they find out my age or that I have young children. These nurses just point at the photos of Toby and Leo and laugh at the fact that I have two sons, though one looks like a daughter because he has long hair. It’s become a game: a nurse will bring in a friend to my room and point out the pictures of the kids and say: two sons, not one son and one daughter. Hee hee hee, she laughs behind her mask or behind her hand.

Steve who is here for a recurrence of throat and neck cancer saw a 30% reduction in his tumor after his first round of SPDT. Gaye next door arrived with a terrible cough from a large tumor in her lung. After her first round, the cough all but disappeared. Yesterday she went for a swim, and today she went out browsing knockoffs of designer handbags. Her husband Kevin is a mean cook, and they’ve taken pity on the American “girl” and fed me delicious dinners on a number of occasions. Tricia who is also here with a recurrence has had a 50% reduction of her breast tumor during her first cycle.

Many of us here have stage iv cancer, and have been given prognoses or treatment protocols from our doctors at home that didn’t feel right to us. Some were more graphic about their displeasure with their medical care: “I just told him to fuck off,” quipped Gaye in her no-nonsense Australian accent after one doctor told her she had 6 months to live. That was well over a year ago.

We international patients of floor 15 are primarily from the U.S. and Australia. Despite our cultural differences, we share at least one trait in common: a strong and independent will. And yet we listen to Dr. Wang, trusting this wise and gentle doctor who has had such good results with so many patients.

But even Dr. Wang is concerned about keeping cancer from recurring. He feels quite confident that he knows how to eliminate it in most cases, but permanent remission is more elusive. Honestly, it was a sobering blow to arrive and realize that patients who had been cancer free were back for more treatment. And yet that’s just the nature of the beast. And it is a beast. I get that now. When I was first diagnosed I wanted to treat the cancer inside myself with peace and gentleness since it was a part of me after all. But now I understand that cancer doesn’t give a shit about me. Cancer’s only motivation is a selfish, ravenous desire to feed and multiply at any cost. And isn’t that the irony? Cancer’s insatiable appetite will be its ultimate demise: by killing its host, cancer will kill itself.

I can’t help but reflect on the massive construction and heartbreaking natural devastation of this land, and it’s happening from 6 am until midnight right outside my window. I’m told that there’s no blue sky here, not just in industrial wasteland Houjie Town, but in all of China. Out of control growth. Of course, this is what the environmentalists have been warning us about for years. I’m sorry for the digression, but here in Houjie, Dongguan, China, I find myself living in the belly of the beast, in a place where I refuse to jog outdoors for fear of breathing in thick gray pollution. Yet this is the place that holds the promise of putting my cancer in remission.

So what’s the plan? Dr. Wang says first we have to get rid of the cancer, or reduce the tumor load significantly, and then we can introduce immunotherapy to strengthen the immune system specifically by culturing superhero-like NK cells (DC-CIK). It’s a protocol being studied worldwide, and recently available to patients in China. In other words, we slay the beast and then we create a warrior army to patrol for and disarm unwanted invaders.

Yes, 18 months into cancer, my language has changed. My attitude has changed. I’m definitely in combat mode now. But it’s more than that. Laser-like purpose. Don’t f*** with me or my children protective lioness energy. You might call it our essential will to survive. I call it fierce love.



  1. Shira – we thought of you and David yesterday as we ate our healthy dinner on the wooden bowls that you gave us for our wedding gift – honoring the fact that is was your 6th wedding anniversary – and how much has happened in our lives in 6 years.

    Those days on Jewett Street are long gone – but the energy that you have always emanated is your calling- card to life.

    Enjoy those bananas!

    Randi and Bill

  2. Hey Shira, we’re sending you lots of love from Amherst! Keep posting!!!
    Jay, Susan, Mojo

  3. Shira, I’m grateful for the chance to read about your time in China in your own words, and just wanted to tell you that we are keeping you and David and your sons in our hearts, every day. Sending you care and strength– Kris Willcox, and family

  4. Hello dear Shira,
    Another stunning blog- a gift to all of us to know that you remain strong and brilliant through this challenging time. We saw your beautiful “boys”- all three of them on Rosh Hashanah- you were truly with us in spirit and love.
    Love, Hedda

  5. vibrant shira!!!
    what an honour to come along with you on your journey as i read your blog entries…i really FEEL your strong warrioress spirit shining thru your words. this morning as i was practicing yoga, and moving thru many warrior poses in preparation for an important meeting… i sent the heat, strength and steadfastness of the pose from my heart to yours. yet, as i read your words this aft… i see you are already so infused with such energy!!

    you, david, toby and leo are always in our prayers…
    keep on shining brightly, beautiful shira!

  6. Welled up once again after reading your blog entries!

    The emotion and passion is palpable.

    My love for you grows.


  7. Power full
    Spirit full
    Love full
    All ways

    • i hope this lands. thinking about you and your family. in my heart i expand and love you dearly. fierce love is a great phrase. i feel you. the energy.

      this is now. now is, all there is. don’t wait for Then; strike the spark, light the fire.
      sit at the Beloved’s table, feast with gusto, drink your fill
      then dance the way branches fo jasmine and cypress dance in a spring wind. the green earth is your cloth; tailor your robe with dignity and grace.

  8. stunning post. indeed, change we must.
    love your writing, your energy…..!!!

  9. Sending fierce love back at ya Shira! Hang in there and fight with all you’ve got. Thinking of you always.

  10. Feeling connected and thinking about you every time I read your posts, and in between … sending good thoughts eastward. You are so brave and strong.
    May the new year bring you peace and good health. Shana tova. Rest and heal.

  11. I am reading every little bit of punctuation you commit to the virtual page. Your way of looking at all of it (and writing it) always touches me and I am once again verklempt at the end of another post. I’m sending you big, big love and more — strength to re-engage your lioness continually. You are never far from my heart.


  12. Shira – Both cousin Bruce and I hear about you from others (Linda, Harold, Sharon, etc. and want you to know you are forever in our prayers. David and the kids, too. I’m always asking for updates and loved reading about your experiences there and the treatments they are giving you. We send our love to you and your whole family. Love, Carol Targoff (in MD)

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