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“It’s funny how what we once thought mattered can pale into insignificance as we navigate through life. To me, I once thought all that mattered was being successful in my chosen profession. To always get a great pay raise, to be in every talent pool. To drive a nice car and own a nice house. That was my 20-year-old self talking. Now, I write this as a 40-year-old who has been on an extraordinary journey and who has learned all that really matters is LOVE. Love for myself, for my children, my family. Love for my passion projects and for this place we call home.
I was 33 years old when my perspective on what mattered changed dramatically. It was at 33 I was diagnosed with an aggressive stage 3 breast cancer, a diagnosis that led to a series of events I could never have imagined but which have brought me to today. A place of peace, love, and gratitude. It was in August 2013 when I heard the words nobody wants to hear: ‘I’m sorry Kreena, you have Breast Cancer.’ I’d noticed a nipple inversion on my left breast and after ignoring it for weeks, I finally made my way to my GP, who referred me to a breast clinic. I’d been scanned, mammogramed, biopsied, poked and prodded and eventually came the words that went on to change my life forever.
I was a young healthy woman. I ate well, exercised enough, never smoked and rarely drank alcohol. So when the diagnosis came, initially I was filled with rage. How could this happen to me? How could life be so unfair? Then came the treatment plan – a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. I had initially wondered if I could keep my illness a secret, if I could navigate my way through it without the world having to know what I was dealing with. I’m an Indian girl. A daughter of immigrant parents. I’d spent most of my life trying to live up to the dreams others had for me. Academic success, attracting the right match in a life partner, flourishing in a career that would give a level of financial stability my parents hadn’t known.
I had achieved it all, ticked all the boxes, made everyone around me proud. How then could I tell them this? Tell them I’m not as invincible as I once thought, that everything was about to change? That my 5-year plan was certainly due a revamp and everything I knew and had worked towards was about to be thrown out like the day’s trash.
In my community, there’s still a stigma around cancer. A perception that having such an illness makes you damaged goods. Some believe cancer manifests as the result of bad deeds in past lives. Amongst those who accept cancer for what it is – a disease that can affect anyone – a pity party is waiting, ready to share stories of grief and hardship. I wanted to avoid all of it. I wanted to avoid the sympathetic gossips that would line up at my door, I wanted to avoid the feeling of failure and let down. I wanted to avoid having to explain everything that was happening to me over and over again.
I wanted to get through treatment, to deal with whatever was coming my way and to then resume life as usual. Back to my career, back to familiarity, back to ticking off the list of things to do before I was 40. However, as the weeks passed, it became increasingly apparent it would never be possible. This diagnosis was not just a blip in my 5 year plan; this was more like a ‘rip up that plan and start all over again’ kind of scenario.
I spent the first few months of treatment hiding away. Only a small select group of loved ones were involved in my care and aware of everything going on in my life. I struggled to ‘embrace’ chemo as my consultant had advised; I plastered a smile on for those around me, but I lay awake at night with tears streaming down my face, wondering what I had done to deserve this.
I joined Facebook groups dedicated to young women with breast cancer and found a tribe there, who despite never meeting in person, seemed to know exactly what I was going through. Together we would talk about our fears and frustrations. We would question whether we would live or die, share our fears, our pain and side effects. And when things really hit the fan, we would be there for each other, acknowledging the anxiety and lifting where we could. I always felt safe when I was surrounded by people with cancer, or people who were helping treat my cancer. With them, there was no need for the façade. They knew intimately what this disease does to the mind and the body and there was no need to protect them from the truth.
One day while at hospital for treatment, I was contacted by a member of my team. They asked if I would consider joining a campaign for a charity that helped people manage the visual side effects of cancer. I was filled with hesitation; I had barely shared my illness with people and had no idea whether I could take part in something so public. But something within me told me to go for it, whispered it was time for change, time to share my experiences. To break the stigmas that were consuming me. To raise awareness and to give this illness purpose.
Over the next few months, I lost all my hair from my head, my body, my eyelashes and eyebrows. I lost a lot of myself, my identity and my strength. But I gained the courage to join this campaign. I was taken under the wings of LookGoodFeelBetter. I was made to feel whole again and gently given a platform to share my story. From this point I never looked back, and I guess it was the stepping stone that brought me here, writing this piece you’re reading today.
My active oncology treatment ended on June 20, 2014. By this point I was bald from treatment, my nails had started to fall off, I had only one breast, I was in a medical menopause and carrying burns from my radiotherapy treatment. I was broken in many ways, physically and mentally. Stuck in the middle of who I once was and who I was slowly evolving into, those moments after treatment ended were so hard to navigate. Struggling to fit back into society but desperately seeking normality once again.
Time proved a healer for me, time gave me space to re-evaluate, to reassess all that actually mattered to me. To put myself at the center of my thoughts and to rebuild a world that revolved around me; the wonderful, resilient human that I was. In time, I learned self love. I spent much of the next 12 to 18 months looking forward. I contemplated what I wanted my future to look like, and in every scenario, I saw a family.
Two weeks prior to beginning chemotherapy, I went through an ‘urgent’ IVF process. It was such a surreal experience, creating the beginnings of new life while simultaneously fearing the longevity of my own. It didn’t feel like a hope-filled process; in fact, IVF for me very much felt like part of my oncology treatment. Fortunately we created 12 tiny embryos, my insurance policy to parenthood that were frozen in time.
In the summer of 2016, having recovered from treatment and a large reconstructive surgery, my husband and I took a holiday to Vancouver. It was set to be two weeks away to celebrate new beginnings, to finally put the chaos and disruption of the past three years behind us. Sadly, we didn’t quite get that. I began to feel unwell within hours of landing in Vancouver. After a couple of days of ignoring the symptoms, I began to find it difficult to breathe. As time passed I found myself gasping for air, coughing profusely and experiencing dizzy spells.
After a series of investigations at a small university hospital, I was transferred to Vancouver General Hospital by ambulance. I had begun to slip out of consciousness and much of what happened that day remains a blur. I was held in A&E while investigations were carried out. My dependence on oxygen was high. I was wearing equipment to help me breathe and every machine monitoring me was beeping red and out of range. Team after team visited my bedside, each searching for answers, each piercing my skin with needle after needle, cannula after cannula. Hands, feet, wrists – there were lines coming out of them all. My husband sat beside me, holding my hand. I felt myself coming and going – one moment aware, the next totally lost. My chest was heavy and I felt like I was drowning.
A doctor came to my husband and explained the severity of my condition. ‘I’m afraid we are struggling to diagnose her. She is acutely unwell and we simply can’t stabilize her. It would be wise to prepare yourselves for the worst and to say your goodbyes; there’s a high chance this may not end well. If any family members need to be here, we suggest you call them and make arrangements.’ I couldn’t speak, but at the moment I was awake. I took in every word and felt my stomach turn. This couldn’t be where life ended, surely life couldn’t be so cruel.
The final team to visit my bedside was a team of cardiologists. While someone read my file, another person placed an ultrasound on my chest and a third person held my hand, came to my ear and said the following words: ‘Kreena, I know you are struggling to speak and to breathe. I won’t put any further stress on you. I simply want you to squeeze my hand if the answer to my next question is a yes… was the chemotherapy you had in 2013 red in color?’
I felt transported back to the chemo ward, my nurse sat in front of me. A recollection of our conversation… ‘Why is this drug in an opaque bag, why is there a huge toxic cross marker over the front of it? Why are you sitting here for the entire infusion?’ My nurse had told me all about this drug, about its red color, about its toxicity and the danger of it leaking out of the vein.
I squeezed the doctor’s hand as tightly as I could. In this same moment, the entire team gravitated towards the ultrasound machine and within seconds an alarm was rung, sirens sounded and I was rushed to Cardiac Intensive Care. I was diagnosed with acute heart failure with a heart function of around 6% and with lungs filled with fluid.
In ICU, the team worked to stabilize me. They explained the diagnosis. I couldn’t get the words ‘Heart Failure’ out of my head; how could anyone live with a heart that had failed? I acknowledged that this may indeed be the end of the road. My sister was on a flight over to Canada, and while I lay alone in my hospital bed, I began to pen letters to my loved ones. The distant goodbyes, sorry I couldn’t stay, I’ll see you on the other side. Just writing and recalling those moments now brings tears to my eyes, so close to losing it all before my life had even begun.
Then I felt a voice, a presence, something within me telling me not to give up. This wasn’t the end, I would find a way through. I held on to that message with every fiber of my being. I made it through 24 hours, then 48 hours, then a week, then 2 weeks. I made it out of ICU, eventually out of the hospital. Yes I was in a wheelchair, yes my heart was still very broken, but I was still finding a way to live.
After 8 long weeks in Vancouver, I was given the green light to fly home. The feeling of relief touching down at Heathrow was immense. I spent the next year working with my cardiologist on medicating my heart back to a good function and rehabilitating my body from wheelchair to a normal life.
Between 2015 and 2016, I had spent a lot of time researching my routes to parenthood. During my days in Vancouver, I met a lady online who would go on to be my surrogate. We spent months getting to know each other, and a year after our first conversations, we found ourselves at a fertility clinic ready for our embryo transfer. We had thawed the embryos my husband and I had created ahead of chemotherapy and transferred one of them into her.
A week later, we found out we were pregnant. Six weeks later, we saw our baby’s heartbeat on screen for the very first time. From there came the 12-week scan, then a 20-week scan, and finally a private 4d scan. As 2018 rolled in, we began to prepare ourselves for our new arrival, and in April 2018 my miracle daughter, Amaala, was born. Myself and my husband were present for her birth. We held each other as our baby girl entered the world and our hearts were filled with love and gratitude from the moment we met her.
Amaala brought joy, hope, and buckets of love into my life. She healed me in so many ways. Soon after Amaala was born, we knew we wanted to grow our family further. We were in a difficult position, we no longer had any embryos and I was unable to harvest further eggs of my own. We decided to look into egg donation and researched our options.
After months of exploring, we set our minds on known egg donation, a process which allows a couple not only to see an up to date image of their donor as an adult, but which also allows Intended Parents the option to meet their donor if they wanted to. Knowing I wouldn’t carry this pregnancy, nor would I share genetics with any potential donor conceived child, something in my gut told me this was the route we had to take, that meeting this woman who would complete our family was key to our journey. Telling my future child(ren) that mommy’s eggs and tummy were broken, but she met the lady who helped create them, was hugely important to me.
So, in August 2019, we flew to Cyprus to meet our South African known egg donor. Her physical attributes were very similar to mine, as was her perspective on life and her values. We met her, thanked her, and spent time with her. We created our embryos and returned home with our tiny maybe babies held on ice. Later that year, our first surrogate shared the news she wouldn’t be able to help us extend our family due to changes in her own circumstances. The news was a huge blow. Finding a new surrogate would take time, something we didn’t want to waste. It also meant I had to give up the romantic notion that my children would come from the same womb.
Fortunately and quite surprisingly, I quickly found a new surrogate and by January 2020, we were matched again. In February 2020, we travelled to Cyprus for our frozen embryo transfer. We were anxious and excited about what the future would hold. By March 2020, as international borders across the globe closed, we were rejoicing in the news that we were pregnant once again, that our amazing surrogate had created a home for one of our embryos. By the end of March 2021, we discovered it wasn’t only one embryo that had taken. After a two embryo transfer, we found out we were having triplets! One set of identical twins plus a singleton.
Our second pregnancy was very different to the first. We were in the midst of a pandemic, unable to meet our surrogate and fearful of the effects of Covid on pregnant women. On the August 23, 2020 our surrogate went into labor. We were only 30 weeks into our pregnancy. Our three triplet sons were born 10 weeks prematurely and taken to Neonatal ICU immediately. The very first time we met them, they were curled up in their incubators, doing everything they needed to do to stay alive. My heart will never forget their fragile bodies, tiny limbs, and endless wires; but in that moment I made a promise to them. To be there for them, for their every need. To be the Mother they deserved, to raise my boys to be Kings.
I write this piece in summer 2021. My Kings have grown into healthy and vibrant babies. Rolls of baby fat surrounding their bodies, piercing blue eyes watching my every move. Thirty little fingers, desperately grabbing hold of mommy at any opportunity. My daughter is three years old; the most incredible big sister and vibrant toddler. My family is complete. My heart is full. My future is bright.
Every single thing that matters to me is right here, within the four walls I call home. Life took me on the craziest adventure; it hit me with lows I could never have imagined, but then surrounded me with highs I could only have dreamt of. I take none of it for granted, for I know how easily the tides could have changed. My advice to anyone in struggling through adversity is to remember this: hold on, pain ends.”
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