Life happens in the present but so often we let time pass by without us even noticing. Like a video game we hurry from one level to the next always searching for the next level up. Get good grades, get a good job, get a house, get a car, get a better job, a better house and so it goes on. Lives are lived one jump to the next and so often we are so busy thinking, worrying, planning and waiting for the future, we let the present slip away unnoticed. All the tomorrows we plan for are not guaranteed for any of us but what happens when it feels like the ground is crumbling beneath you and you have no choice but to pay more attention to the present. It takes great strength to ground yourself in the presence and Saima is a woman who emulates strength. Both physically from her gym training to the words that flow as she tells me of the past year. A year that has intertwined heart ache, love, devastation and living. Saima has endured the heartache of a miscarriage, the trauma of a diagnosis of Stage 4 non small cell lung cancer alongside an engagement and marriage. Saima is not to be pitied though. She does not need your sorrow. Saima is a strong woman living in the moment.
I reached out to Saima because whilst living a life I could never have imagined, I have found a comfort from knowing the stories of people who have also found a way to smile in the rain. People that aren’t waiting for the storm to pass, because for some the storm never will pass. Saima is such person, an amazing attitude, strength and as she puts it she’s pretty gobby too! She is keen to share her experiences of living with cancer.
Hearing about Saima’s childhood it is no surprise she is a strong woman. She lived in Gravesend with her Pakistani immigrant mother and father and 3 sisters. She found herself divided between two cultures wanting to embrace both and never really sure where she fitted best. Aged 12 her parents divorced and with her father being the driving force behind religion in their family she became more westernised. After her parents divorced, as the eldest of her sisters, she stepped up in helping to look after her sisters. Food she tells me always played a central role in her family life. It was aged 26 and at the point when her mum was having to sell their family home with arrears mounting that Saima decided to play a wild card and open a restaurant. She saw it as an opportunity to give back to her mother, who she so clearly adores. It was a chance to share the amazing cooking of her mother with others and so Masala Wala Café was born. Pakistani restaurants are usual solely run by males, something that didn’t deter Saima. Judging by the amount of awards and reviews they have received it was definitely worth the gamble.
It was seven years ago on a night out in a Gravesend bar Saima met her soulmate and now husband, Gareth. Gareth was dj-ing and after a kiss but Saima was having none of it without being taken on a date! After a first date to a curry house, something that was a massive novelty to Saima who had never been to one, the rest was history. In the seven years that have passed they have gone from living in south London with Gareth studying the knowledge to moving further south and settling in Kent. They have packed a lot into those years and like any young couple they had dreams and aspirations. A life plan in front of them.
When January rolled round again the year had the most amazing start for Saima and Gareth. Saima finding out she was pregnant in the first week of January followed shortly by engagement. Starting a family was something Saima had dreamed of. Coming as she calls it from a large pack she yearned to put all her mothering of her sisters in practice with her own pack. The end of January saw the devastating start of Saima’s life though and taking a tumble down the rabbit’s hole. Saima suffered a traumatic miscarriage being rushed into hospital due to the amount of blood she was losing. Heartbreak led to hope and a feeling that they could simply try again.
The next month went by and it wasn’t until March that the first symptoms of what Saima’s body had been fighting were starting to show. A trip to the GP with a swollen gland was met by reassurances that it could be glandular and being told to come back if the gland changed within the next two weeks. No one, not even the doctors could envisage what was really behind these changes. Saima was sent for some blood tests that showed a problem with her thyroid. The GP suspected goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland, this fitted with the upper chest pains Saima had also developed. She was waiting for an ultra sound on her neck, but the swelling was getting persistently worse and the wait was proving to long. A week before she was due to have an NHS ultrasound on her neck, Saima went for a private scan. The scan showed no problems with her thyroid so Saima returned to her GP to show them the results. It was then that the gravity of the situation started to become clear. Saima was immediately sent to a&e. Just two days later with the world now fully tipped on its axis Saima found herself in the specialist cancer ward. She hadn’t even considered cancer as being the cause having spent a month fixated on her thyroid. Equally she had no experience really of cancer, no family history and no stories of friends. Just a word, a word that throws up a million thoughts; chemotherapy, hair loss, parts being cut out, end of life care and ultimately death.
Looking at Saima she doesn’t look ill enough for the diagnosis she received a month after finding herself on the cancer ward. Something in my own life I hear often that Andrew doesn’t look ill enough to be in end stage kidney failure. Looks can be so deceiving. What does cancer look like? As Saima says cancer is ageless, raceless, faceless, it doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care that Saima is only 29 and was about to start the next chapter in her life with her husband. A diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer conjures up images of an old man, having smoked all his life spluttering into an oxygen mask. Saima’s own mother and relatives in Pakistan struggled too with the gravity and reality of the diagnosis. Her grandmother, thinking she had chicken pox and only when Saima had found a leaflet online from a Pakistani hospital and sent it to her did she start to understand a bit more. A naivety to the situation that Saima sometimes wished for.
On those first few days on the cancer ward doctors were able to tell her she had cancer but not what cancer. They needed to wait for biopsy results to determine what the primary cancer was. Initially oncologists were telling her she had blood cancer, which in young people such as Saima has quite less scary statistics. Saima is a very factual person, she wants to know the facts and have a good understanding of what is going on. The initial days proved to be some of the scariest with the lack of information. She understands the need to not bombard patients with information but being given a diagnosis of incurable stage 4 lung cancer she wanted to know more. With doctors throwing in words like palliative care, Saima went into, as she puts it panic central. Within the space of a few short months Saima had lost a much-wanted baby, Jasmine, and received a diagnosis of incurable cancer. What followed was so many emotions and lots and lots of crying. It was a horrendous time for her and her family and that truly was their rock bottom. As someone who would always try to make the best of a situation she had to take a step back and acknowledge just how truly shit it was. There was no sugar coating this one. In allowing herself to feel the weight of the situation it has aided Saima find a path to acceptance.
With parallels to my experience of losing Lexi, Saima found herself in a situation that others couldn’t allow themselves to think about. Living peoples worse case scenarios causes some quite shocking reactions. The fear of death causing some to shut down and turn their backs rather than reach out and support. In speaking out about her experiences on her blog “Curry & Cancer”, Saima is attempting to breakdown these taboos in order to start conversations that allow those trapped in their own neuroses to join the conversation. Like I do myself, talking and writing about her situation is proving to be a therapy for Saima.
The cancer which had spread from her lungs to her liver, bones and lymph nodes is currently treated with a daily pill. Doesn’t sound much does it but it is known as the “chemo pill” maybe in an effort to get across the reality of taking this pill. It comes with a whole host of side effects but the ones to be focused on for Saima is that it is targeting her cancer and at the moment it is stopping it from spreading further.
Saima now several months on is fighting her way up from that rock bottom. She has gone from shutting herself away constantly googling cancer and statistics to getting herself back out living. An ability to be admired knowing that, as she puts it, her mortality maybe up for grabs, but she is committed to the here and now. Last month in true bossy Saima style she brought forward their wedding. A party, a celebration and a time to be surrounded by love, family and friends. As Saima said; “To love and be loved is what truly matters, whether its family, friends or partners, to love is the most important and magnificent thing of all.” And it is that unwavering love that has allowed her to stand back up tall. Putting most of us to shame with the way we sleepwalk through life Saima can be found weight lifting in the gym, checking out the best eateries and enjoying the everyday with her husband, family and friends.
None of us truly know how long we have on this world. I spoke to Saima about all the tomorrows I had imagined with Lexi and how we forget that none of them are promised. Saima has been given that knowledge in the most brutal of fashions. But I don’t think cancer realised who they were dealing with. Saima is a beautiful soul with a voice she isn’t afraid to use. It was an honour to talk with her and when we had finished putting the world to right and prepared to leave she asked if we could meet up again. I don’t know if I could think of any finer compliment. When she has finished enjoying an incredibly well-deserved holiday I will look forward to meeting up with this inspiring and uplifting lady. I came away from our meeting buzzing. Two new friends living a life completely unplanned, finding a way to dance in the rain.
Follow Saima’s inspiring journey with cancer here:-
Masala Wala Cafe: http://masalawalacafe.co.uk/