5 Years Ago I Was Diagnosed With Cancer

By Nelli Kim

Five years ago I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I remember staring at Dr. Chuu blankly. What did she mean that she thought those grapefruit-sized masses near my ovaries could be cancerous? I had been reassured by the series of doctor’s appointments telling me they were probably fibroids. Innocuous, common fibroids that as many as 70% of women develop, and 99% of the time are harmless according to Johns Hopkins. I felt betrayed by my body. This was not a part of my plan.

I was enjoying the last days of summer and had just completed a business plan for what would eventually become RĒDEN. I had a busy Fall calendar lined up and planned to slot in fibroid surgery somewhere between fashion week appointments and Thanksgiving. That persistent pain that felt like the stitch in my side I sometimes got while running, the lower back pain, the bloating, the frequent urge to peewasn’t that just being a woman?

Things I know now that I didn't know then:

  • You will be humbled and pared down to the essence of who you are. You will experience pain, despair, and depression. You will also feel more loved and more gratitude than you ever have before.
  • If you pay attention, you will witness many tiny miracles and people conspiring together for your healing.
  • You will be shocked by how little you care about your appearance, about losing your hair, about wearing the same pajamas for weeks in a row.
  • You will also be shocked when you unintentionally reach your pre-cancer “goal weight” because of surgery / chemo, and decide you look malnourished and sickly. Not slender and Kate Moss-chic like you had imagined.
  • You will be irrationally jealous of what seems like everyone else living exciting and productive lives, while your days consist of moving from bed to couch and back, binge-watching Chef’s Table, The Great British Bake-Off, and all ten seasons of Friends.
  • Healing is not linear. You will still get infections and end up in the hospital after you finish chemo. But don’t worry, it's a part of the process.
  • It will take you one full year after chemo to start to feel like yourself again. Don’t feel bad about sleeping 14 hours a night because your body needs it.
  • The foot pain and neuropathy you experience because of chemo is going to turn comfortable shoes into an urgent mission rather than an abstract concept.

 

Credit: Netflix Chef's Table

 Credit: Netflix Chef's Table

My favorite episode of Chef’s Table tells the story of Grant Achatz, who not long after opening his 3-Michelin star restaurant Alinea, was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer. His radiation and chemotherapy treatments burned his tongue, shed the lining of his esophagus, and destroyed his taste buds. He faced an existential crisis, if he could not taste nor physically cook because he was too exhausted—could he really be a chef?

Grant's story demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit and the will to thrive regardless of our circumstances. He realized that being a chef was not about the actual cooking or tasting, but about pushing ideas forward and invention. He began sketching out his ideas for new dishes which his team translated into culinary innovations like the edible balloon pictured below. He created food with his mind, without ever touching it.

 

Credit: Netflix Chef's Table
Credit: Netflix Chef's Table

As Grant says in the documentary, “All chefs want to be known for using a knife. Cutting, creating, sautéing, doing all of that. But maybe that’s not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing is taking that idea, that little nugget, and handing it to someone else,” and watching it blossom into an even bigger idea. Grant's cancer was the catalyst that forced him to push his process, and enabled him to inspire his team to the next level. They would receive their first James Beard award the following year, and eventually their first of three Michelin stars.

Grant's story inspired me to believe that maybe, just maybe, cancer could be a powerful positive catalyst in my life instead of an ordeal I had to get through. That it could push me to a whole new level of creation and entrepreneurship; force me to transcend my ideas of what could be, to create something beyond my limited imagination. I even wrote a fangirl email to the Alinea account, sharing how much Grant's story had meant to me. I'm still waiting for a response, lol.

Grant Achatz's sketch of a new dish
Credit: Netflix Chef's Table

While I wouldn’t have chosen to get cancer, I also recognize that it irrevocably tied me to my purpose and mission to create stylish and comfortable shoes. It made me uniquely suited to understand the suffering of those with chronic foot pain. What started out as a problem-solving exercise became personal. What I’m left with is the knowledge that we all carry invisible histories within us. We get to decide what to make of our histories, and how we will use them to forge a new present and a better future.

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