Jade Gangster is a two-time young adult cancer survivor, who meets mad real everyday challenges with cutting sarcasm, laughable perspective and fem street style–boldly inking her custom tag on chronically illin’ lifestyle.
Hailing from Hong Kong, London, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many places in between before settling in Hawai’i, Jade Gangster is a mash of .5 generation immigrant Chinese, Buddhist heritage, yoga practice, borrowed Native American tradition, middle-class, maybe a little boughetto, and other urban American influences that all bang on cancer. Jade symbolizes the human disease process, because this lustrous metamorphic gem is created by heat and pressure that produces profound physical and chemical change. Gangster is a metaphor for the young adult cancer tag, because cancer picked me–like it or not–and the only way out of this gang is if I die.
Jade Gangster is my alter ego … because sometimes, I need to Jade Up. She does things and says things that I might not. She doesn’t waste time on apologies. She finds the funny when I’m too sad for words, and she goes to the darkest places without fear or limits–keeping fiercely honest and vulnerable.
Chronically illin’ with cancer gets real–and real funny.
My Cancer Story
In September 2008, at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was sick for over a year before I got this news, but thought my symptoms were just a combination of a nagging flu bug, nonprofit job stress, and over-training for marathons. I was very in touch with my body and in peak athletic condition–being a certified personal trainer for many years, having run 14 marathons up to that point, and even coaching for the National AIDS Marathon for several seasons. Nothing prepared me for cancer.
Folks kept saying, “Don’t worry.” And that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is the “good cancer,” because it boasts a near 93% cure rate with first line treatment, which was six months of ABVD chemotherapy. Even though I trolled pretty hard physically, isolated myself, and went to some very dark places emotionally, I somehow got through it.
After finishing those six months of ABVD chemotherapy, I was told that I was in remission. I celebrated my remission with a personally forced trip to Hawaii, where I was too sick to do much of anything. But I did toast my remission with a glass of wine, and I got to meet my aviation hero Sully Sullenberger on my flight. Well, despite my circus of get-lost-cancer antics, a PET scan only a couple months later showed something small.
“It’s probably nothing,” is what I was told. I spent 19 months in limbo, haunted by “probably nothing.” I kept telling myself, “I’m in remission,” over and over again, as I moved through a series of failed biopsy procedures and surgeries that left me with more pain and nerve damage. And at the end of those 19 months–days shy of my 34th birthday in 2011–I was told they had been wrong. No remission for me. Happy birthday … now, die!
Since I was only in remission for a couple months at best, I was labeled with primary refractory Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a high-risk for failure. Docs plotted on an extremely aggressive approach to second line treatment–a higher than customary approach to high-dose chemotherapy, autologous bone marrow transplant (a.k.a. stem cell transplant), radiation therapy and a clinical trial with a new drug for relapsed Hodgkin’s (SGN35).
When my cancer recurred, I opened myself up to receiving more help and support from friends, and did my best to cut out unhealthy relationships. I also started to blog about it all – first, to a closed network and now widely. This second part of aggressive treatment in my cancer journey made first line treatment look like a walk in the park. I went through every single step in the bone marrow transplant process until the final infusion, at which point, my lungs were deemed not healthy enough to continue. I lost 60% of my lungs.
There have been many twists and turns from my initial treatment plan due to the consequences of past treatment on my body, changes in medical opinions, unforeseen obstacles like the national shortage on chemotherapy drugs, guidance from my spiritual path, and shifts in what I’ve wanted for myself over these years. Every aspect of my life has been challenged by cancer–my professional career, finances, health insurance, fertility, family, friendships, dating, and it goes on.
Cancer isn’t funny, but it does have a sense of humor. I write about it, because it gives me courage.
My Research on Young Adult Cancer
I know what you’re probably thinking–Young Adult? Really? You’re old! Those were my thoughts exactly, when this term was first used to describe my situation. I was 32-years-old when I was first diagnosed, and outside of cancer world, the only time I had ever used the term ‘young adult’ was in reference to the everything-you-need-to-know-about-puberty section at the public library. But when I began medical treatment, it became very clear that the world of cancer is pretty grayed out. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are old people. Not to mention, at the time of my second cancer diagnosis, I was executive director of San Francisco Village, a nonprofit in the national movement for aging in place. (Cancer made me give up that role.) It’s just that I’m trying to get help for my own survival, and the geriatric bent on most cancer-related stuff leaves out many of the things that keep me up at night and struggling.
In 2016, there were over 1.7 million newly diagnosed cancers in the United States, and young adults accounted for over 70,000 of these new diagnoses.1 That’s one every eight minutes, and seven times more than pediatric cancer. And unlike every other age group, young adults (patients diagnosed between ages 15-39) have seen zero improvement in survival rates since Nixon.2
All this leads me, Christabel Cheung, to where I am today. I am now an assistant professor at the University of Hawai’i–Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work, with research interests in cancer support, health disparities, and health care policy and practice. When I began pursuing a PhD at UCLA, I was pretty sick and my prognosis was not the best–no one was pushing me to plan a new career. But I thought to myself, ”If I die, I will at least go out trying to do something about cancer beyond just me.” Now that I’m actually a professor doing cancer research, I sometimes need to pinch myself to check this is real. I may have lost a lot to cancer, but I’m still alive, and even better … I’m still growing. #ilooklikeaprofessor
1 American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2017. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2017.
2 Stupid Cancer. http://www.stupidcancer.org.