November 9, 2009

From the BIG C to little c... We all know someone with CANCER - Let's talk about it!

Many of us have lost a loved one from the big C. I lost my father, aunt and friends to Cancer.

And while it's not a fun topic to talk about and in many cases and cultures – taboo -- talking about it could save your life or the life of someone you care about. I've experienced that the hard way.

I come from a typical Asian family that isn't encouraged to be inquisitive, outspoken or to make a big fuss about anything for that matter. At home, it wasn't ok to speak up about what was on my mind – a "don't ask, don't tell" environment. (So it's liberating that I've found a passion/career path through to share inspirational stories and essentially be the voice for the voiceless.) I vividly remember the moment as clear as the bright fall colors. One crisp autumn day, I nervously asked my Aunt Hong if she got checked for cancer, specifically if she's ever had a mammogram. I don't recollect what actually compelled me to (gulp) ask that question, but what I do recall was being very embarrassed to even bring up a question of that nature. (Or any other questions for that matter, especially to my elders). I wasn't raised to question my "authorities," not to mention, talking about breasts. Viscerally, I just felt like urging her to go to the doctor. She looked at me, stunned. She answered with a gesture. (Just a nod of the head) I don't think she ever followed through and got a checkup.

Unfortunately, the conversation ended there. So did her life just a few years after I posed that question. My mother's sister died of breast cancer at age 48. I don't know if she ever got checked. I do, however, know that that year alone in 2000, I lost my father to stomach cancer and Auntie, in just a few short months—and no one really talked about cancer itself or how we were affected by it. Our feelings were shoved underneath the imaginary rug. Losing Auntie Hong was harder on me and my family than losing others family members, including my own father. Not that you can tangibly, philosophically and emotionally categorize which death was more difficult to deal with. I think the sorrow or raw sense of sadness lingered not only because she was too young to die, her job wasn't done on this earth.

Auntie Hong left behind a fourteen-year-old son, Thomas, whom my siblings and I treat like a younger brother. "Are you afraid?" I remember asking him. A blank stare ensued. I tried comforting him as he blinked back tears. "It's ok to be scared and to cry." I assured him. "You are like a brother to us. We are here for you. Your mom asked us to watch after you after she passed and to make sure you grow up all right." I took the first step in breaking the silence by talking to Thomas – the lack of communication and being quiet was what caused more confusion and fear about cancer and other topics like sex.

Though my experiences with losing people to cancer, I've realized that this disease does not discriminate, age, sex, creed or class. I also learned that many people are totally in the dark when it comes to cancer facts and myths. Being hush hush about cancer can be deadly.

George Lin, my friend who was the San Diego Asian Film Foundation's Program Director died at age 37 of Pheochromocytoma, a rare tumor of the adrenal gland. I remember meeting George, at the festival. One year he was a young, healthy and funny. I remember George cracking jokes as we ate Korean food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The next year, when I came to volunteer at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, I saw a totally different George. He looked gaunt, feeble and ill. He didn't explain the change. He didn't crack jokes like he usually did with me. And I didn't ask. I just knew that something was wrong.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the San Diego Asian Film Foundation/Festival. While many people were excited to converge in San Diego to celebrate film, there was a somber feeling – as though something was missing from the festival. Many volunteers and festival goers say they could feel that George was there in spirit, I certainly did. George inspired this year's festival theme: Cancer Awareness. Lee Ann Kim, the festival's Executive Director recently told me that after George's death, she became obsessed with researching cancer and cancer awareness. "After talking with so many people, I realized that so many people didn't want to talk about cancer," Kim said. "Like many people who have cancer, George didn't tell many people about his illness. But I knew, I was his boss." It seems many people are still very afraid to talk about cancer, especially the Asian American and Asian community. As we all know too well, that could be a tragic mistake.

In the spirit of those we've all lost to cancer, I am urging you, begging you, to please talk about it. Awareness and Early Detection could save lives.

I'm inviting you to break the silence -- talk about it.

Rest in peace Dad, Aunt Hong and George. I hope his story inspires everyone to be aware and share. PLEASE SHARE THIS STORY (and video) WITH AT LEAST ONE PERSON. Be inspired to do something so that talking about the BIG C won't be that big of a deal to talk about anymore. Let's get it out in the open, and talk about cancer – so it will no longer be taboo, I hope and believe that one day, that the CAPITAL C – will be replaced with a little c. So please, talk about cancer. Be aware. And share. It may save the life of a loved one. It may save your life.


  1. I couldn't believe how many people embraced this campaign at the film fest. It's true when we say very few people have NOT been affected by cancer one way or another. I'm scheduled for my first mammogram this week! Rock on, Toan!

  2. Just yesterday I came across a story about a young Mongolian woman living in the United States that has been diagnosed with Leukemia and has only 3 months to live if she does not recieve a bone marrow transplant... the problem? she doesn't have health insurance, and this procedure will cost her $350K!!! Her options? Death, or, let me think, Death? Not only do we have to raise awareness about Cancer, but it is imperical to have a healthcare system in this country that will provide everyone the chance to live!

    Toan, Thank you for raising awareness through your amazing website! You are an inspiration to us all!

  3. I will say that currently I am dealing with this topic. I have a close friend in NY that recently found out (last 5 years) that she has cancer (can't remember if its ovarian or pancreatic), the point is it isn't one of the "good ones,' as if cancer in any shape or form is "good."

    She has been in remission for a while and I was having hopes of seeing her while in New York this coming holiday, and I found out this week that she is now on permanent other words, things have turned bad. I have no idea how she is doing, but I am very saddened by this.

    We shared so many fun times at my former job in New York that cancer and her just seem so out of nowhere. How? When? More importantly, Why? It's true that caner knows no bias, it just knows one thing and one thing only, shock. I wont go into health care and what that means, but I think the important thing is that time is precious and we must do what we can in this life to take time to pay attention to ourselves. We get so carried with work and stress to survive that we forget about the importance of being healthy so that that stress is even warranted.

    I think the bigger picture here is that we all need to take time to be involved in our health and regard ourselves as something that is not absorbing and inconsequential. We must go to the doctor regularly, in whatever shape or form that means these days, not to mention where you live, and get check ups... because like when my mom discovered i had scoliosis via a chest x-ray for walking pneumonia, things can and will happen to us. Humankind is fragile...we must always remember how precious everything is... especially with loved ones around us.

  4. This video touched my heart. After experiencing family who has gone through cancer and have passed on, it truly makes you want to join the oraganizations and events that go on, supporting the cure for cancer.