You have breast cancer (Part II)

I often think back to this past Eid al-Fitr to remind myself how easily life’s joys and challenges are intertwined. That morning we said Eid prayers with family and our Sunday School community; mid-day, we went to a wonderful lunch at a friend’s home (a friendship deepened through our shared experience with cancer); the day ended, untraditionally, at a Justin Timberlake concert. But in the middle, there was a visit to the hospital for my bi-annual MRI.
It was the only day available; I think God was making sure I had everyone’s supplications and happy energy. Within minutes, I had changed from a brightly colored chooridar, gold heels and bangles into a blue gown, white slippers and a hospital wrist band. Pure happiness and intense aggravation in the span of a few hours — a microcosm of life, perhaps. It’s in how we deal with both good fortune and difficult moments that ultimately determine our sense of purpose and contentment. I hope I can be faithful to the many lessons I’m learning through this journey.


The first, and most important, has to be gratitude. While I think I’ve always been aware of my blessings, it’s easy to slip into an entitled frame of mind and assume that life will continue to go on smoothly. It doesn’t work that way. For anyone. My path had been free of bumps for a long time when, in the span of twelve months, my father suffered a stroke, my daughter went through a really painful time, and I got this unexpected diagnosis. It was a lifetime of worry, fear and heartache wrapped up in one year. I really didn’t think I would ever smile again.

But with the deep embrace of family and friends, who formed such tight concentric circles around me, falling was out of the question. Each doing what they instinctively knew could help – unflinching shoulders to lean on; phone calls and emails of support and sustenance; prayers in overdrive and hugs in abundance; and all the practical things from cooking to babysitting that make pushing through trying times a little easier. Hard times are a fact of life. Getting through them is an act of faith. And the support of family and friends is a lesson in gratitude.

Lifestyle Choices

Paying more attention to lifestyle choices, including diet, exercise, stress and one’s environment, has been an important learning lesson, still in progress. I had a fairly healthy diet before, but I’m pretty sure I’d never eaten kale. Now I juice it most mornings, with cucumber, celery, green apple, lemon and ginger. It’s delicious, really. Revamping one’s diet can seem daunting but I try to follow a simple rule of thumb: eat natural, nutrient-rich foods like greens, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits in abundance and limit processed foods, sugar and red meat. Regular exercise has to supplement a healthy diet. I’m neither an athlete nor an outdoorsy person, so, once again, I keep it easy. I make time for a brisk 45 minute walk each day, and add in yoga and strength training, each once a week, though I’ll be the first to confess that some days it’s my good intentions that get the most workout!

While almost everyone can agree on the importance of diet and exercise, most people are not fully conscious of the impact of toxins, found in personal care products, household cleaners, and in the environment, on our health. Only after my breast cancer diagnosis did I begin to pay attention to the lasting ways in which these toxins meddle with our systems, causing hormonal fluctuations. Women are particularly prone to absorbing these seemingly innocuous substances through our creams, cosmetics, deodorants and fragrances; the chemicals in these products, many of which are known carcinogens and endocrine-disrupters, then seep into our largest organ—our skin—and build up over time. I’ve found The Environmental Working Group and the Breast Cancer Fund to be excellent resources for figuring out what to use and what to toss.

Finally, I’m keenly aware that my cancer appeared during the most stressful year of my life; I can’t help but think there’s a link. As hard as it may be, finding ways to reduce stress through prayer, meditation, breathing, exercise, massages or whatever works, is essential. As a writer, days still go by when I haven’t left my computer to exercise, or am feeling particularly stressed due to an impending deadline. That’s when another lesson comes in – be gentle with yourself, and keep trying.


A health crisis, either your own or that of someone you love, definitely realigns priorities and provides perspective. In my case, I’m trying to focus on the things that carry meaning for me, not spread myself too thin, or measure my success by other people’s standards. I’ve made it a point to surround myself with people who make me smile and provide positive energy, and not to get bogged down in the stuff that saps my soul. My passion is finding committed people, listening to their stories, and sharing their inspiration. My dream has always been to write a book, a collection of portraits of ordinary Muslims doing extraordinary things, especially so our children can read about heroes in their own faith. One day, I always thought. Now, I think. Inshallah.

If I had the chance to start a movement and emblazon a pithy slogan on a yellow plastic wristband, selling millions worldwide to raise awareness and funds for cancer, it would be “LiveKind.” One of the most important things I’ve become more conscious of during this journey is how each of us, all of us, is going through something. We may look fine on the outside, seem to have it all together, but it’s hard to know what we’re really feeling on the inside. Chances are, some pain, some sadness, and some insecurity.

You never know who may need a little extra compassion; probably each person you meet. It reminds me of a short video that I love, which takes place in the corridors of a hospital. It shows different people, some in hospital rooms, others sitting in the waiting lounge, others walking in or being wheeled out, each with a caption giving some idea of what they are going through. The video opens with a quotation from American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.” It ends with a question, “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes. Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?” LiveKind. It’s foolproof.
Salma Hasan Ali is a Washington, DC based writer, Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly, and Chief Inspiration Officer of MoverMoms, an NGO that promotes community service. Salma’s personal letters during her breast cancer journey are published at:
Photo credit: Shahidul Alam

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