Looking back on everything I’ve been through in life, it has really been quite the journey. Sometimes I feel like writing a book, so I can share with others what I’ve been through and how I learn from all my experiences. Realistically though, I’m not going to write a book. Not now, anyway.
I’m not going to bore you with my life story, so let’s start with the important schtuff. When I was 17, I battled anorexia. No one knows this except for my closest friends and family. For the longest time, I was ashamed to tell people. Because to me, it was a sign of weakness. It seemed like a disease that people often mock. “Oh look at that stick skinny girl. I bet she doesn’t eat.” Or, “Look at that skinny girl. I bet she throws up after every meal.” I was stick skinny and I did eat without throwing up afterwards. Food became an unhealthy obsession; I counted every calorie and every fat gram. On extreme days, my body survived on only 300-500 calories.
One week before my high school graduation, when I was about to hit the gym, I noticed I was short of breath. I told my dad, who took my pulse and blood pressure. He thought his blood pressure machine wasn’t working because it had measured out my pulse to be 30. He was nervous though, so he rushed me to see my doctor. The machine was indeed inaccurate, because my pulse was actually 25. They raced me to the emergency room. I spent one week in the hospital where they fed me a lot, and I mean A LOT, of food. I didn’t want to admit that I was anorexic though. And for some strange reason, my doctors believed me. I was discharged from the hospital and was left trying to gain weight on my own. If you know anything about anorexia or any eating disorder, it isn’t usually something you can overcome without professional help from a team of dietitians, psychologists and doctors. Although I gained weight, my first year of college was still tough for me, as I was still trying to battle my obsession with food. At some point during my sophomore year, I grew up. I took an intro to nutrition class and realized what eating healthy really meant, and slowly learned how to take care of myself. This was when I decided to pursue a career in dietetics. I wanted to help other people develop a healthy relationship with food.
Fast forward to a few years later, I was running my own volunteer programs at Syracuse, mainly trying to educate low-income children how to eat healthier. It was the greatest time of my life. I had a boyfriend, I had best friends, and I felt like my life was actually going somewhere.
Two months before my college graduation, I was forced into a battle with cancer. Everything I thought I had, was gone. In a month, I found myself laying in a hospital bed with IV’s sticking out of my arm and toxic chemo going into my body. Reality didn’t hit until my hair started falling out. My boyfriend left me, and for about a week, I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive the next few months of my life.
But life can be funny sometimes. It can surprise you when you least expect it. With the loss of my hair, my boyfriend, and pretty much my health, I gained so much more. Greeting cards and phone calls came in daily. One of my best friend’s grandmother even wrote me a card. In it, she told me that she will always be there for me, even though I have never met her before. My family became my lifeline. I looked to other cancer survivors for inspiration, and decided not to dwell on the negatives in my life. I found myself even happier than before I was diagnosed with cancer. I turned silly, cracking jokes at the dinner table and making my parents laugh everyday. My dad nicknamed me his little monk. Their smile and laugh was my motivation to keep going with my treatment.
Fast forward to January 4th. It’s been the day I have been looking forward to for about a year. Four surgeries, 6 chemo treatments, many radiation sessions (I don’t even remember the number anymore, which is a good thing!) later, I found myself sitting in my new apartment, writing only a mere line in my journal: “I finally made it.”
Although most of the major hurdles were life threatening, not once have I ever thought everyone else’s problems were less serious than mine, which is why I decided to post this. Recently, I’ve been having mental fights with Facebook. I cherish happiness so much that I hate reading sad statuses, and I even hate reading when people are having a bad day.
Here is my life lesson to everyone: to a certain extent, you have control over almost everything that happens to you in life. Train your mind to seek the the beauty in your life experiences. Never stop learning, and more importantly, never stop growing.
Six months ago, it took me five minutes to get to and from the bathroom while using a walker. Six hours ago, I was at the gym and on the elliptical. The scars on my leg will forever be with me, the fuzzy white hairs on my head aren’t even an inch long yet, and the memories of every single battle I fought will never leave me. After everything, I think my life is absolutely amazing…and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I would like to preface this article by saying that I do not condone a diet filled with processed & fast foods.
When I first entered the field of dietetics, I was against all fast food. To me, McDonald’s was an evil corporation filled with mcfatty fake fried food. And it is. I mean, a single chicken mcnugget contains over 25 ingredients, some of which I can hardly pronounce.
My opinion of McDonald’s changed one week after my first chemotherapy session, which lasted 8 days straight. My body literally starved for a week as my body was trying to fight off the nauseating side effects of the toxin going into my body. A ginormous bag of fluids (potassium and sodium) was the only thing keeping me alive. The fun doesn’t stop once I was taken off chemo. For two weeks after, my appetite was almost nonexistent. Every food tasted like cardboard with a dash of metal. It was even difficult to keep down supplemental nutrition beverages such as Ensure. I remembered learning that one of the leading causes of death during cancer treatment is malnutrition; as I saw my weight drop rapidly, I decided I needed to start eating anything to keep my body going. I thought of the most flavorful comfort foods, and for some reason opted for McDonalds. As I sat in the hospital bed dipping my first piece of chicken selects into BBQ sauce, I began to feel guilty. Conveniently, my nutritionist walked by my room, saw that I was finally eating, and gave me a huge grin. She walked out, not commenting on my lunch choice.
For the next 4 chemo sessions, I followed a similar pattern of non-intentionally starving myself, then eating foods I normally would not have touched pre-cancer life. I slurped down ramen noodles and consumed cans of processed, sodium-filled soup. The more flavor, the better. As a result, my weight steadily increased back to almost-normal and I had the strength to resume more chemo.
I’m not saying that every cancer patient will have the urge to eat processed fast food. I bow down to any patient who has the appetite to eat a ‘healthy’ diet while on treatment. But for me, McDonald’s actually saved my life.
So what did I learn?
I’ve never been against specific diets such as vegetarianism or veganism. I strongly believe that people are entitled to their own beliefs. As long as they aren’t doing anything blatantly questionable, such as eating nothing but cabbage soup and bananas for a week , or eating 14 jars of baby food a day, it’s acceptable.
As someone who has studied nutrition for 5 years, I often hear and see people trying to follow “the perfect diet”. Obsessing over what types of food to eat is in our culture. Whether it may be trying to shed a few pounds or trying to avoid diseases such as diabetes and cancer, our society tends to jump on the newest “superfood” and goes absolutely crazy over it. What’s worse is when people judge others for not believing in the same diet or health benefits of foods as they do.
The lesson is: there is no perfect diet. Unlike the biochemical processes that function essentially the same in every average human body to keep us alive, humans also possess unique mental, social and even environmental needs – all of which also help keep us alive. You cannot go wrong with a diet filled with vegetables and fruits, but if you sometimes crave a chicken nugget or two, don’t beat yourself up over it.
Life really is so beautiful...it’s a little sad that we often realize this when it’s too late, or when something drastic happens to us.
Life is also fragile. We also don’t realize this unless we’re caught in a situation that makes us realize that we can be gone the next day.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t picture myself dying at a young age. The thought didn’t even cross my mind, because it doesn’t really hit you until much later on. Sitting in my doctor’s office, looking at my doctor’s sympathetic expression and trying to understand his words, all you think about is: “This is just another sickness. It’s like a cold or the flu, but with much more extensive treatment.” Why? Because cancer itself doesn’t physically hurt. You can be running a marathon the day before you are diagnosed.
You begin to feel it with every chemo treatment, with every clump of hair that falls in your hand, until you decide you’ve had enough and you shave your head. You begin to feel it when your life is taken over by doctor appointments and MRI’s. When every single day is a constant struggle with your mind, because it keeps wondering if the cancer has spread or if it has returned. That’s when reality hits.
News is sometimes too good to be true. This hit me today, when I found myself sitting in my surgeon’s office. The tumor they removed from me 3 weeks ago? It wasn’t cancer at all. The real cancer is still in me…a little tumor clinging onto my blood vessels deep in my leg. Oops. No wonder why the first pathology report showed that my “tumor” they removed was 100% dead..it wasn’t alive to begin with. There’s no one to blame. Not my surgeons, not my doctors, not the pathologists. In fact, they’re to thank. They’re saving my life..or at least trying to.
For once in my life, I’m solely relying on hope, chance, and luck. Having cancer isn’t like trying to get into a good college. I can’t study for it. I can’t prep for it. I just have to let everything hit me and hope I can keep getting back up every time I fall down. I also can’t fail. I can’t move onto the next best thing if I get defeated. There is no next best thing.
There’s a lesson in all of this. If this is life’s way of seeing how far it can challenge me, it’s doing a hell of a job. But I refuse to give up. The stronger it hits me, the stronger I will get. I will keep thinking this until I hit 80 years old. After that, life can do whatever it wants with me.
I keep making mental lists of everything I want to accomplish after I’m cancer free. It’s about time to list it:
In no particular order:
1. I want to learn how to play these:
2. I want to drive cross country.
3. I want to buy a really nice bike, and ride it more than I drive my car.
4. I want to learn how to let go of all the negatives in my life. Easier said than done.
5. I want to grow my hair long enough so I can donate it to Locks of Love.
6. I want to get my Dietitian license.
7. I want to meet Michelle Obama.
8. I want to live on the west coast for at least 2 years.
9. I want to travel to Tennessee with my cousin Jenn. She thinks it’s a weird plan. I think it’s awesome.
10. I want to go on a really nice vacation with my parents and brother- my treat.
11. I want to live in an apartment in NYC with my best friend Jen. The day that I’m rich enough to do that is the day I’m rich enough to afford the vacation for my family.
12. I want to write a book with Mavis about why boys suck. Co-author: Jen La.
13. I want to figure out why I know so many people named Jen.
14. I want to make people realize that happiness isn’t really something that’s hard to obtain in life. It’s quite simple really: if you woke up this morning and are able to sit and read this, you have no reason to be unhappy.
Life. It’s meant to be lived. Do a bit more living and a lot less complaining. It’ll take you places.
Your relationships with everyone will change
So much can happen in such a short amount of time. These past months flew by, yet I feel like I need time to go even faster. As many of you know, I was diagnosed with cancer at the end of March, and I’ve been battling it since. The outpouring amount of support, love and kindness I am receiving is tremendous. Cancer is a funny thing. It’s meant to destroy your body and potentially your life. For me, it took away my comfort, my hair, my immune system, and my final months of enjoying a normal undergrad life in college. But throughout the last few months, I feel like I gained so much more. Everyone associates the word “cancer” as such a terrible thing…and trust me, it is. However, you can always find beauty in any crappy situation that life throws at you..right, Brian? :) So before I share what beauty I found in being ill, here’s a quick story of what happened to me:
It all started with a fat leg.
I’m a runner. At least, that’s what I pretend to be. My endurance actually sucks and I don’t run very fast. In Feb., I started a new regimen at the gym and began running really fast intervals. Around mid-Feb., I noticed my left leg starting to hurt, specifically in my thigh. I ignored it and passed it off as my body being sore from running intervals. Bad idea. On Feb. 27th, I noticed my whole entire leg started to swell up. Actual quote from one of my best friends Eddie: “Holy shit. Your leg is fat.” Which was when I decided to go to the emergency room. The nurses sent me to get an ultrasound, and it turned out that I had an extensive blood clot running up my entire thigh. I was immediately checked into the hospital and put on blood thinners to make sure the clot didn’t travel to my lungs or brain.
Hospital food sucks – but the ICU can actually be quite nice
On the second day of my hospital stay, my doctors agreed that it would be a good idea to try to remove as much of my blood clot as possible through a simple technique that involved inserting some blood de-clottification meds (technical term I made up myself) into the back of my thigh. They also inserted a filter into my inferior vena cava to make sure any clots that dislodged from my leg wouldn’t move to other vital organs. After these procedures, I was placed in the ICU because the drugs they used on me can cause really yuck side effects, like bleeding in the brain. I actually liked being in the ICU, because the nurses pay so much more attention to you..and you get a private room! The sucky part was that I was placed on a fluids only diet for 2 days. But things can get worse. And it did.
The birth of Timmy the Tumor
On the 4th day of being in the hospital, my doctor decided to do another ultrasound of my leg to see how much of my clot dissolved. The ultrasound technician spent an hour pressing that stupid device that they use on pregnant ladies into my thigh, because she noticed something was blocking the blood flow in my leg. They sent me for an MRI and lo and behold – they found a tumor compressing on my veins. So what do I do after I was done crying? I name the damn thing. Thus, the birth of Timmy the Tumor.
“There is a 95% chance that this tumor is benign. But as your surgeon, I can’t tell you 100% until we get the actual biopsy results.” Dr. Rapp’s words were really reassuring to my whole family and I. Unfortunately, two weeks later, I found myself sitting in his office again, my whole mind and body numb as he explained that my tumor is in fact, quite the opposite of benign. I was diagnosed with a very rare form of a malignant High-grade Synovial Sarcoma that was growing in my upper thigh. High-grade means it has the potential to grow and spread much faster than a low-grade tumor. How did I get so lucky?
Lucky to have my leg..for now.
Dr. Rapp immediately helped me get an appointment with Dr. Rosen – an Oncologist that has been specializing in Sarcomas since the 70s. Upon meeting him, I immediately liked him, mainly because he was wearing a bow-tie. His brilliance clashed with his communication skills, but I wouldn’t have his bluntness any other way. I definitely didn’t want him to hold back how serious (or not) my cancer was. He started our conversation by saying: “You are very lucky. If this was 30 years ago, we would’ve chopped your leg off, and you probably would’ve died anyway.” He said that amputation of my leg is still possible, but not very likely. I try to keep that thought at the back of my mind though. (Maybe I can run faster with a prosthetic leg! Now isn’t that a thought…)
I was mentally prepared for my first round of chemo. Physically, not so much. My first round would consist of 192 consecutive hours of the toxin being injected into my body. I was sent home with a 24-hr. spiffy chemo bag..which really just looked like a fanny pack. Since Dr. Rosen had said that I probably wouldn’t feel the effects until the 5th day into treatment, I made the mistake of agreeing to a cousins-night-out on the 3rd day of treatment. I had to cancel the dinner plans when I found myself puking almost every hour starting on the 2nd day of treatment. However, my cousins came over my house anyway. How did they spend the night? By keeping me company and sitting around my bed as I got sick over and over again. Towards the end of the night, I kept repeating that I couldn’t do this…and I wanted it all to be over. My cousin Jenn held my hand as my brother Vin gave me a hug and a smile and simply said: “Nope. You can’t give up. You can do this.” To the best of my ability, I smiled back, then puked again. Family: it’s a beautiful thing.
Where I am currently
Almost 3 months later, I have gone through a total of 3 chemo treatments, 2 blood transfusions, a platelet transfusion, 19 radiation treatments (with only 6 more to go!) and a LOT of time being confined in my house because my white blood cell counts were dangerously low. During my chemo weeks, I literally sleep and puke my days away, so time fortunately goes by quick. The days following chemo, however, can really kick my butt. Nausea doesn’t go away immediately after they take you off chemo. For me, it takes a good week for my nausea, heartburn, headaches and fatigue to start wearing off. The good news is that my tumor is definitely shrinking and Dr. Rosen is really happy with my progress. Surgery will be sometime in July, so I will have another chemo session before that. I’m just waiting for my platelet and white blood cell counts to go back up again before they can restart the drugs. I’m crossing my fingers that a leg amputation is still not needed, and hopefully they can just take out the tumor.
Seeing the beauty in cancer…and the beauty in people
I will never, ever feel lucky that I got cancer. However, I find myself realizing that I have been learning so much about myself and about others throughout my battle. For one thing, I discovered that I actually have a nice shaped head! Would I ever shave all my hair off again? No. But at least I know I don’t look terrible as a baldy. Ok, seriously though: I discovered the beauty of kindness. Since my diagnosis, I have received cards and letters from people who I’ve never even met before. Friends come out of their way to visit me at home. (Brian & Kristina – I’ll find a way to make it up to you both for missing your visit!!). Eddie & my other best friend Marissa even started a relay for life team for me back in Syracuse. I reconnected with my high school best friends and they’ve given me the best laughs whenever I felt down. Jen – you’re still crazy as ever and you have no idea how much your sense of humor and friendship means to me. As for my family – I couldn’t ask for a better one. My parents have been taking such great care of me, and Vin has been checking in on me daily from California. My cousins turned into my siblings, and my aunts & uncles treat me as if I were their own daughter.
Cancer can beat me up as much as it wants to…but because of all the support and love I’ve been receiving, I actually find it hard not to smile some days. So thank you everyone. I can’t find a better way to repay you guys except for beating this cancer back to remission.
I’m in the mood for Italian again. I remember when I first came home from Florence, I couldn’t stop raving to my friends and family about ‘real’ Italian food; stocking my kitchen with high quality olive oils, balsamic vinegar, honey and pastas. Even though I was only in Italy for 10 days, I could immediately tell how much effort and passion is put into every meal created for a family. A lunch could take a whole morning to prepare, while the whole family would take 2-3 hours to finish eating the meal.
Although I would love to spend a few hours a day preparing a meal for my loved ones, my schedule simply does not permit it. Fortunately, the Fall semester just ended and I have a few days to breathe. As a mini thank you present to my parents for putting up with my whining and stressful rants during finals week, I decided to cook them a special meal tonight, inspired by my trip to Florence.
Rigatoni w. Homemade Tomato Sauce:
I picked up this pack of Rigatoni from this small Italian market near my home, which brought back memories of my visit to a pasta factory back in Florence.
Mini lesson about the production of pasta:
Fresh pasta is pushed through what is called a “die”, which gives the pasta it’s unique shape. Dies can be made from different materials; teflon and bronze being two of the more popular ones. Bronze dies produce a tougher (and higher quality) pasta texture that is said to hold the sauce better!
The finished product:
The sauce recipe was given by Jacopo, our chef/instructor in Florence. I lovelovelove this recipe because it’s simple and tastes really fresh. I chopped up one carrot, one stalk of celery, one small onion, 2 cloves garlic, and 2 lbs tomatoes. Then I sauteed the garlic, onion, carrot and celery in some olive oil, added the tomatoes, some salt and pepper, and allowed it to simmer for half an hour. Top it of with some fresh basil and the result is super yum. You could puree the sauce in a blender or food processor for a smoother texture but I left it the way it was.
Spinach and sun dried tomato stuffed pork tenderloin with gorgonzola cheese.
My kitchen is a mess, tomato sauce is splattered all over my clothes, and my hands smell like garlic. However, dinner was delicious, and I can’t wait to cook this meal again for someone special:)
Sometimes the day before Thanksgiving is almost as exciting as Thanksgiving day itself. Why? Because I see my whole kitchen filled with ingredients ready to be prepped into an amazing calorie-laden feast. Every year, I contribute to making the desserts and leave all the main dishes to my brother. Sadly, he wasn’t able to make it back home from the west coast this year, leaving the cooking to the parents of the family.. which will be rather interesting. You see, you can never guess what you’ll end up eating when the parent’s are left to decide what ends up on the Thanksgiving table. Perfect example of this would be two years ago, when they purchased a roasted duck from Chinatown and tried to trick all the kids by saying it was really a mini turkey. They failed, for obvious reasons.
This year, my cousin Jenn requested that I make some sort of a cake. Considering I haven’t seen her in almost a year (read about her adventures here), I decided to make one of her favorite desserts: cheesecake! If you read her blog, you can get a good sense of why I look up to her, but another amazing trait she has is that she can finish off a whole cheesecake by herself in about two days. It’s quite impressive, really.
So Jenn, this is mainly for you, I expect it to be gone by tomorrow night ;)
White Chocolate Raspberry Swirled Cheesecake
Adapted from Cooking Classy
1 pre-made pie crust (I used chocolate)
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/3 cup cold water
12 oz cream cheese (You can try using 1/3rd less fat, but c’mon..it’s Thanksgiving)
1/3rd cup granulated sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup white chocolate chips
1/4th cup heavy cream
*Preheat oven to 325°F
1. in a sauce pan, combine raspberry sauce ingredients
2. Bring to a gentle boil, and simmer for 5 minutes until it thickens and raspberries break down
3. Strain to remove the seeds, and set aside
4. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and 1/3rd cup sugar with an electric mixer until fluffy
5. Add egg and egg white and mix
6. Add lemon juice and vanilla extract
7. In a microwavable bowl, combine chocolate chips and heavy cream. Microwave for 30 second intervals, mixing in-between, until melted.
8. Add chocolate mixture to cream cheese mixture, and mix until smooth
9. Pour into the pie crust, and wiggle the crust around until the filling is even
10. Using a small spoon, dollop the raspberry sauce onto the cake, making small circles.
11. Use a toothpick and swirl the sauce around
12. Bake for 35-40 min
13. Let set in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours
Stay tuned for some incredible (and oddly interesting) stories and pics from tomorrow’s Thanksgiving at the Li’s :)
It is never easy for me (or anyone) to figure out what to get my mom for her birthdays. Proof? One of her friends just purchased her a Petco gift card so she could buy treats for our dog. Not once has she ever asked for anything, not even a simple piece of jewelry. She’s the type to spend her birthday gift cards purchasing things for me and my brother (or in this case, my dog).
The rest of the family realized that what truly makes her happy is a simple dinner with everyone, followed by scrumptious cake. Because my brother and I can’t exactly be there with her during her birthdays due to school, I figured this year I’d make her a (cup)cake anyway.
So happy happy birthday to my mommy dearest. I owe you a dinner when I get home! Hope you don’t mind that I’m eating your cake for you this year :)
Healthy Shortcut Coconut Lemon Cupcakes w. Blueberry Frosting
1 box vanilla cake mix (I used Cherrybrook brand)
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup no sugar added applesauce
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup shredded coconut
16 oz. vanilla frosting (can be homemade, of course)
1 pt blueberries, washed and drained
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together cake mix, water, applesauce, zest and coconut
3. Fill up cupcake liners
4. Bake for 15-20 minutes
5.Meanwhile, pulse blueberries in food processor until it becomes a jam-like consistency.
6.Pour blueberries into a strainer and strain juices into a bowl. You may need a fork or spoon to force the juice to come out.
7. Add blueberry juice to frosting a few drops at a time, and continue to mix until desired color/consistency has been reached.
Wait for the cupcakes to cool before frosting!! (Never patient enough for this step)
Makes approximately 24 cupcakes.
Quick, delicious, and healthier than your normal butter-and-eggs cupcakes.
I am currently being owned by Senior year. I know there’s trouble when the level of procrastination increases along with the workload. Internship applications are due in two months but my mind stubbornly only thinks about glycolysis and how the next Biochemistry exam is going to kill me. Despite all the stress, I’m still smiling every single day. And FYI, they’re genuine smiles. I owe many thanks to a few things that keep my happiness level in check:
1. Friends & family – yes, this includes you. No matter how busy you get, never forget how important and helpful it may be to take some time out of your schedule to catch up with the people you love. Even a few minutes of chatting goes a long way.
2. The month of October – every year, I get so excited when the world around me turns into a shade of orange/red. The foliage, apples, and pumpkins remind me that a new season has arrived, with even more to look forward to. The only bad thing about its beauty is that I find myself periodically going to the park when I have a million other things to get done. But it’s so worth it sometimes.
3. Food – Don’t forget to take care of your health before anything else. Work should never take precedent over feeding yourself. I lost track of this concept when I found myself eating PBJ’s for the past week…which was when I decided to cook something that might stimulate my brain into understanding biochem.
Rosemary Roasted Butternut Squash with Agave Soy Salmon
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon rosemary, finely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Toss ingredients together, scatter squash on baking tray, and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until squash is cooked through. (You can test by poking a fork through it)
Agave Soy Salmon
*note: honey can be substituted for the agave
1 lb (or 4 individual filets) of salmon
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon agave
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon ginger, minced.
1. Marinate the salmon in a ziplock bag with the rest of the ingredients for about 1-2 hours.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
3. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil (for easy clean up), and bake salmon for 12-15 minutes, depending on thickness of salmon.
Disclaimer: Eating this meal will not help you get an A in biochem.