I knew my life would change, but it didn’t. My plan was to gather my life for more than a decade in New York and relocate it to the other side of the world.
The first two months were spent on supplies – finding an apartment, calculating how to pay utility bills, learning which bus route was best to get to CNN’s office every day. Too worn out to explore the sights, I told myself that once I settled in my new place, I could find myself getting to know the city honestly.
I found the apartment. And soon after I moved I found something else – a piece on my right chest. I felt like a large, flat, heavy stone came out overnight inside me.
Within a week there was an appointment disturbance – mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, results, referral. But I knew what it was like before anyone told me. I knew it in my deepest self, as if I knew I was in love.
CNN Hong Kong Day Holiday parties, I got the news I was waiting for – stage 2B, which required six months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation. I told my parents, a 13 hour time difference, via email.
My sister, who had never been to Asia before, flew from the United States to be with me for the first two weeks of my treatment in early January. When he arrived, the jet was delayed from the route Raleigh – San Francisco – Tokyo – Hong Kong that took a whole day, he entered my apartment and went straight to clearing the vomit.
Before cancer, I was not a person who liked inspired excerpts or go-get-’em-tiger speeches. After cancer, I still wasn’t. But one thing my illness did was force me to let go of some of my insecurities.
There was no longer a choice to hide when I felt self-conscious. The person with whom I took a bath as a child watched me vomit 20 times a day and does not judge me for it. Until my diagnosis, I felt that a third of Hong Kong’s medical staff had seen me topless. And soon my friends would see me in my most vulnerable situations – with sores in my mouth, hemorrhoids, nausea and muscle numbness – and they still wanted me to hang out with them anyway.
As I sent my sister on her return home flight, I did not know that I was running an invisible clock. We were all.
The virus outside, the disease inside
A few weeks after my treatment, we started hearing news in the office about a new virus passing through China. The head of our office sent us all to work from our small houses. All public New Year’s lunar events in the city have been canceled.
At this point, many Hong Kong – including myself – believed that city officials were overly cautious about how badly the SARS handled it. People did not wear masks unless they were ill, there were no mandatory temperature checks and most businesses remained open.
Several friends have planned trips to Hong Kong to visit and help me. But as the coronavirus arrived and Asia began to lock in, each flight was canceled one by one.
My hair started to fall out in two weeks of chemotherapy, around the lunar new year. I decided to bite the razor and shave it. Every living room in my neighborhood was closed – I guess because of the holidays, as everyone in town gets a week – except for a barber shop. The barber looked confused and surprised to see a woman walking. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Cantonese, so we contacted him via the Google Translate app on my phone.
Writer at Jade Market in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Courtesy of Lilit Marcus
“It’s bad luck to cut your hair during the New Year,” he wrote back.
“I’m already unlucky,” I replied. When he didn’t shake his head again, I took out the “cancer” characters. He immediately moved and started working.
Ten minutes later, I was bald. The barber did not charge me.
“I’m sorry,” he wrote. This would be one of the hundreds of times I have heard these words in the next six months. However, what I could not say yet was that I did not feel sorry. I felt lucky. Lucky for me to have health care, to have a supportive Hong Kong community – many of whom were the CNN colleagues I just met – and to have a good long-term prognosis. Sure, I felt surreal. But in 2020, everything felt surreal.
I wondered how I would explain my new look to everyone in the office, but the corona made it irrelevant. Our office decided to keep it closed indefinitely as the virus spread.
This special tour of Hong Kong offers travelers the opportunity to see one of the busiest ports in the world up close.
A travel writer who does not travel
Even when I was falling asleep for 10 or 12 hours a day, my journey was itchy he still wanted to scratch. I had planned to take advantage of Hong Kong’s central location and excellent airport as a way to explore more places in Asia, and as the editor of CNN’s Travels section, I also hoped to report from different locations. In the US, it was normal to fly at least once a month. Suddenly, that was no longer an option for me – or for anyone.
Covid-19 was, ironically, the perfect cover to be sick. The oncologist told me to wear masks, use a hand sanitizer and protect myself when my immune system was at risk, and then one night it was like the whole city had cancer with me. None of my colleagues knew that I was replying to emails from my oncologist’s office instead of my office, or that most of my happy social situations were smoke and mirrors. The expensive wig I chose for office clothes only made occasional appearances on Zoom calls. The delivery of groceries without contact became the norm as the corona continued. And sometimes, sometimes, whole days passed when I forgot I was sick.
Although I couldn’t make a backpack in Laos or relax on the beach in Bali, I got the gift of getting to know my new home better than I expected. One weekend, a group of us encountered the famous Dragon’s Back hike in the southwestern part of Hong Kong Island. In the end, we reached a beach, and even though it was March, it was already hot enough to get into the water. I had only brought a bathing cap for this occasion, but instead I dragged it and jumped, bald and happy, into the sea.
This year, I learned the word joss, or luck. A colleague I trusted brought some red paper printed with flowers and pineapple – to represent growth and prosperity – as a New Year’s gift. You’re supposed to burn it as an offering to your ancestors, but I didn’t have the heart to do it and hung it on the wall of my apartment. I felt like I was living in the eyes of a hurricane. In a city of seven and a half million people, only four died of the virus. My bubble in Hong Kong was full of bubbles.
Finding joy in an unexpected place
People think that cancer makes you wise. Just look at all the TV witnesses thin and pale and bald and holy, giving life lessons before they die quietly – Dr. Mark Greene at ER, who died politely on a beach trip in the arms of his lover, was my first pop culture with cancer.
There is something about taking a close look at your own mortality that is supposed to make you deep. But the truth is that sometimes people get sick. Good people get sick and stay nice. Rude people get sick and stay rude.
This was one of the reasons I was reluctant to share my diagnosis with people, especially when coronavirus appeared. Internet commentators have argued over whether the corona was real or who “deserved” it. Despite Hong Kong’s relative safety, with everyone in masks, I still felt a little paranoid every time I left my apartment. Better to get sick secretly, I thought, than to live vulnerable to the public.
In April, when I was four months on chemotherapy, Hong Kong recorded a week in a row from zero new coronavirus cases. The restrictions that came into force began to be lifted slowly. Restaurants could be filled again, as long as they placed dividers between tables and maximum sizes from four to eight.
If you asked me a year ago what I expected to be my big move to Hong Kong, I would have talked about all the nice trips I would take to Asia and the crazy adventures I would have taken to the city. But life, as the expression goes, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
Being ill during coronary artery disease and still being able to take top medical care and live my life reminded me that there is joy in everyday life. Being able to shop for myself was a gift. Going out for a walk was something to celebrate instead of a simple job. Cancer has shown me what a wonderful, wonderful miracle it is to sleep at night and discover that you woke up again in the morning.
Times have changed. The sun rises and sets. My tumor shrank so much that I was scheduled for a lomectomy instead of a mastectomy. The children returned to school. And life, as it tends, continued to move.