Bravery Co. is about so much more than just my story – I’m only a small part of a huge intricate web of cancer stories. These tales can often be heartbreaking but without a doubt will also contain happiness, hilarity, resilience and an impressive dose of inspiration. By sharing these stories I want to make the conversation less awkward, more familiar and easier to conduct - should the big ‘C’ ever hustle its way into your life.
This is Nell’s story.
I immediately identify Nell as she struts in off the busy streets of Bangsar, confidently rocking her bare bald head. Nell is born and raised in KL, she works in marketing, she’s Muslim, and she has stage 3 breast cancer. However most importantly, she is smart, ambitious, super funny and has one of the most badass and sassy attitudes I’ve seen in a long time.
Let's start at the very beginning
Nell sheepishly admitted she ignored the lump since school because she was scared. She’d rationalised its existence as something related to her cycle – it went up every month and then came down.
I had it for 15 years and ‘it lived through 4 partners.’ (I loved her form of measurement.) Therefore, when the lump suddenly became painful and she finally did get it checked out, the diagnosis process was fast, painful, scary as all hell, and left her world in a spin afterwards.
‘I knew after the initial ultrasound that I had cancer.’ The doctor kept on repeating how the tumour ‘was very angry.’ Following the scans, the doctors needed to take a biopsy and remove the tumours. This procedure came with a bundle of complications. It was long, painful and the feisty tumour caused the surgical instruments to break! Nell remembers screaming for what felt like hours while her partner never left her side. Postop photos of the huge tumours have now become a bragging prop used by her closest crew to visually prove how tough Nell is. And they’re not wrong.
The big shave
Like many, it wasn’t until Nell did the big shave that she really accepted the fact she had cancer. Nell’s shaved her head before but admitted that this time was different, it was hard - it was out of her control and it made this new disease visible to everyone. Her partner operated the clippers while the stylist captured the big moment. And staying true to Nell, she broadcasted it live on FB so she could share it with all her friends, family and the world.
Now her mum has started calling her a ‘Toyol’ - a small, alien looking creature from Malaysian folklore. This bald creature is meant to obey their masters commands and enhance wealth by stealing. In Nell’s case though, her mum refers to her as a ‘Useless Toyol’ as instead of bringing in the money, cancer is now sucking it out.
As scary as these trips down cancer lane can be, I believe that you have to step back and poke fun at the situation every now and again. I was happy to see this way of coping transcends across the seas.
Bold and brave
Right from the get-go, it was blatantly obvious that Nell’s one of those rare breeds of people that honestly doesn’t give a f*ck about what others think. I don’t think this is a new or a side effect brought on by cancer – this is just Nell.
Nell’s sharing a lot of her cancer story via social media. She’s so bravely getting out in the world and telling her story to help raise awareness of breast cancer and the importance of breast checks. The most daring to date has been a holiday snap on the beach wearing a newly altered bikini with one triangle removed. You can’t help but be impressed of this gutsy chick sitting so proudly with half of her chest exposed. (Every time I see it I want to fist pump her again!)
This has gone viral through social media and for a Muslim girl in a Muslim country, is a very courageous move. Knowing the risks and the backlash she may have received, she was surprised that a lot of people who liked and responded to her photo, were Muslim women who wear the Hijab. She glowed as she noted, their support ‘felt good.’
Cancer has been a ‘really good test to know who your real friends are.’ She likened it to a friend ‘spring clean.’ In quite a few instances, Nell made the harsh discovery that ‘your real friends are not the ones that were there pre-cancer.’ Some have disappeared, some have become really awkward and others are treating her like she’s a different person altogether.
‘Treat me like I’m normal, treat me like I’m Nell! Don’t treat us differently, we’re not disabled.’
A plea that really hits home for me – as I’m sure it does with many cancer patients.
However, it has to be noted that with the disappointments, came an overwhelming amount of love and support from her tribe of supporters. Friends that had travelled from other countries to pamper her, hundreds of hospital visitors, a constant stream of presents, a best friend that has chopped her lovely long locks and a mother who is always there.
What have you lost to cancer?
With a deep breath, she replied ‘life.’ And then laughs – maybe to mask the weight of her reply. ‘I love to be busy, I love working and I have not worked for four months’ she explains with deep frustration. ‘Seeing all my colleagues do all the things I love is hard. My project, has been taken away from me because I’m sick and it’s so sad for me not to be a part of that. That’s one of the things that has made me really, really depressed.’
So much is lost through cancer – energy, motivation, moments, friends, lives - but with the loss, sometimes new and sparkling opportunities arise that would never have happened had it not been for the shitty situation. Nell’s new sparkle came in the form of a designer friend giving her an incredible present - a rad portrait of Nell rocking her bald head and hipster sunglasses in psychedelic colours (see above). This burst of inspiration gave her the nudge she needed to get her own side biz off the ground. You can now get yourself a t-shirt with this super cool design and half the proceeds going towards National Cancer Society of Malaysia. Stop it! I can feel Nell’s vibes are going to spread around the world in no time. Check it out via @thegodmothers.my
How do you deal with cancer?
‘How do I find peace? To be happy within myself. When I’m in pain from the chemo, I close my eyes and think of happy things and when I wake, the pain is gone - so it must be mental. Before I wasn’t happy with myself – dating the wrong people, crappy diet.'
'I would give a fuck about what people would think about me and now I’m learning not to, and it feels good because that’s the sense of control I need right now.’
Nell and I after our KL coffee date.