Pain: “feel it, live it, embrace it, and then learn from it.”

I was looking through articles about skin care and happened to run into a blog site belonging to a woman named Julie Yip-Williams, a former corporate attorney who maintained a blog discussing her journey through stage IV colon cancer from initial diagnosis in 2013 to her death earlier this month. Ms. Yip-Williams recently passed away at the age of 42 leaving behind 2 young daughters, ages 6 and 8. The NY Times article written about her offered the following quote that she left for her daughters:

“You will be deprived of a mother. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you. Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways.”

*NY Times story available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/obituaries/julie-yip-williams-dies-writer-of-candid-blog-on-cancer.html

Her story and quote hit home with me (and forced me to stop reading about skin care) because I too, have two young daughters and am also a corporate lawyer. However, it wasn’t these similarities that I saw with Ms. Yip-Williams that prompted me to write this post. Rather, it’s what I share in common with her daughters because like them, I also lost my mother to cancer.

Just like any tragedy in life, my mom’s cancer diagnosis came as a surprise. I still remember exactly when my sister told me that our mom had been diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer, it was July 13, 1991, a few days shy of my 13th birthday. I had just arrived back to our home in Manila, Philippines after  visiting family in the United States. My mom was supposed to fly back home with me but something happened that required her to stay. I didn’t know what it was but given that she ran a company, I figured it was related to that and thought nothing more of it. A few days after arriving home, we received a phone call from the U.S., which my sister answered. After she got off the phone she sat me down and relayed the news, which went something like, “Mom isn’t coming back because she has cancer and the doctors believe she only has 6 months to live.”

Of course, my immediate reaction was to enter into denial. Some of the thoughts going through my mind were: 1) There is no way this is true. It’s a joke, she’ll be back for my birthday.; 2) How could she have lung cancer when she never smoked? Must be a mistake.; 3) Doesn’t  cancer only happen to troubled families? Our family was not troubled, it’ll be fine. 4) She’s telling my sister to say this because I said some mean stuff to her a few weeks ago and she wants me to feel bad. Because my dad was already with my mom in the U.S., I had no adult to talk to about this so I was able to happily slide further into denial.

Then in December of that year, I went to see my mom for the first time since her diagnosis. She had been receiving cancer treatments in the U.S. so we all went to spend the holiday with her near her hospital. In just 6 months since I last saw her, she had gone from being this beautiful, vibrant woman to an emaciated, bed-ridden cancer patient. Before my mom’s diagnosis, I had never paid attention to what cancer was and it was at this point when I saw her that I realized it was a real disease and one that was going to take her away. Almost immediately, fear set in and I started reading everything I could get my hands on about cancer to alleviate the fear but at that time, all of the literature I could find led to one conclusion…death. This did nothing to help and so all I was left with was fear, fear in knowing that I was going to grow up without a mom and I had no idea what that was going to be like. She died the following month.

I don’t remember crying much at her funeral. In fact, I actually think I didn’t cry at all because my dad asked if I understood what had happened since I didn’t seem to be upset. When he asked that question, I had to force myself to cry by thinking about a sad movie (not about my mom) so he’d leave me alone. As a kid, one of my greatest super powers was my ability to have an imagination. To protect myself, I imagined that I lived a life where this never happened and that everything was fine and would continue to be fine. I didn’t realize until many years later that I was doing this because I didn’t want to feel pain.

I had forgotten what I had gone through in the nearly 3 decades since I lost my mom. But after reading Ms. Yip-Williams’ quote, I remembered my own journey.  It made me want to acknowledge that her message to her children telling them to go ahead and feel pain was an amazing gift, one that I wish I had given to myself when my mom died.  Because for me, back then, I didn’t know this was acceptable. I was a kid and I didn’t want to be just another kid crying for a mom who wasn’t around anymore to hug away the pain. I thought that was just too painful and if I allowed myself the luxury for even a second to feel that pain, I would never be able to get back to normal.

After my mom died, it took me many years of experiencing other types of loss to realize that I needed to stop running away from the pain. I stopped not because I got smarter or had some sort of epiphany but because I just got tired. Eventually, I had to ask myself: What is the point of running away when I know she is never going to come back?  When I asked myself this, I realized that no matter how much time I spent running away, I would have to deal with grieving her loss eventually and that day was just as good as any to start. So, right there, while I was in the middle of feeding my first-born child (who was a week old at the time) her 2 a.m. bottle, I finally allowed myself to do what I refused to allow myself to do for so many years, I cried for my mom. I was 28 years old.

Coming to a realization that it’s important to feel pain for and grieve a loss such as the loss of a parent does not make the pain go away. But what it does do is allow us to accept that pain isn’t there to force us into submission rather, to empower us to act on and handle a situation. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel it, then we’d never be prompted to do anything different to handle whatever it is that’s causing us pain. That’s why it’s so important, when going through something like a loss or any tragedy to never forget to be kind to yourself and allow yourself the luxury of pain and just “feel it, live it, embrace it, and then learn from it.” Because in doing this, we learn, not to forget, but how to move forward.

In the years since I’ve lost my mom, I’ve gone from becoming a cancer scientist who discovers and develops drugs to treat the disease, to becoming a regulator developing regulations that improve patient access to therapeutics and health care and to finally becoming a lawyer who helps other scientists searching for a cure to secure funding and establish companies so that they can bring their innovations to patient care. None of these things have helped erase the pain of losing my mom but it’s how I have learned to move forward for myself, my children and most importantly, for her and her memory despite of it.

*I posted the image of me graduating from MIT not because I think it represents pain (although, don’t get me wrong, I definitely felt some pain going through MIT especially around exams…LOL!) rather, to imprint hope. I know my mom was  worried about how I would turn out after she was gone. While it was hard growing up without her, seeing what happened to her gave me something to focus on and hope for, which was to cure cancer. In fact, holding on to that hope helped me get accepted into college at 15 then on to grad, law and business schools and the rest is history. Always have hope. ❤️

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