One woman’s story with so much to teach us.
What is the worst news you think you could receive at this point in your life? Is it the loss of a loved one? The termination of a job opportunity? Perhaps a financial drawback. For Kim Murch, that news came in 2015 when a lump in her breast, which had been benign for five to six years, had suddenly turned cancerous.
Now, how would you respond to hearing the worst news you could receive at this point in your life? Cry? Remain shocked or stunned? Perhaps be at a loss for words? Kim Murch's response consisted of all of the above. Another response that weaved its way into the other: gratitude. From the onset of her breast cancer, Kim felt that everything was going to be ok. That positivity worked its way into every aspect of Kim’s cancer journey, from the treatment and healing process to interactions with doctors and strangers. Whether in examining her body-image post-operation or in her reflections on receiving healthcare abroad, Kim exudes appreciation. No matter what portion of her breast cancer ordeal she describes, she never fails to mention the people and places that lifted her up along the way. For that reason, among many others, we should all try to take a page out of Kim’s playbook.
Against All Odds
For years, Kim had no reason to believe that the lump on the right side of her chest would turn into breast cancer. During the time she spent travelling with her husband and two children, doctors in Hong Kong reassured Kim that her chances of getting breast cancer were slim to none. “There’s only a two percent chance that lumps like mine become cancerous,” Kim said with a laugh. “Got unlucky odds there, but lucky in just about everything else.”
It all started with two ultrasounds Kim received while living in Hong Kong. When the scans revealed the small lump in her breast in 2010, and again in 2012, Kim’s immediate thought was that no one in her family had a history of breast cancer. This thought, plus her doctors' consolations, convinced Kim she would be fine with good health maintenance and regular mammograms to monitor the growth.
Later in 2012, when her family moved to India, Kim had embarked on a new path of physical fitness and health, leading to a few lost pounds and a more protruding lump. Kim initially attributed its growing prominence to shed weight all over her body, but when she realized that her son’s head would “hit the lump” every time he hugged her, she decided perhaps it was time to get it removed. So, she went to see a gynecologist in the medical facility near her home. While Kim thought this would be the professional to see for a breast lump, she was quickly corrected; this gynecologist only dealt with “breast-feeding breasts”.
Throughout the mistaken visit to the gynecologist, who then referred Kim to a breast surgeon, who then asked Kim to reschedule her appointment later in the day due to a previously scheduled operation, Kim maintained her composure. “We were just fortunate to have a good hospital right in the area where I was living,” she said. When she returned to the surgeon that afternoon, “still thinking nothing of it”, the tables quickly turned.
"I come back in the afternoon, and [the surgeon] goes, 'We're just going to do a biopsy,'” Kim recalls, lightheartedly. “So, I've had no preparation! The next thing I know I'm in there, and the biopsy is very painful. And [the surgeon] said, 'You're going to have to stop screaming now,' [Kim laughs] But I could not stop screaming.”
Although Kim is able to find some humor in the situation now, back then she was not laughing. The pain from the biopsy was so great Kim underwent a local anesthetic. Meanwhile, Kim focused on the lack of cancer in her family's medical history, the improbability of her lump’s harm, and continued to think nothing of the growth in her chest. And yet...
“The next day I got to the reception area and I get my [biopsy results] and it says I have cancer. And I'm like, 'what?' The doctor was going to see me that morning anyway with my results, so I'm going up the stairs like, 'What the HECK I have cancer? This CANNOT be right.”
A Whirlwind Experience
To Kim’s utter disbelief, the surgeon “knew [the tumor] was cancerous” as soon as she saw it, despite Kim’s clean medical history. Just as quickly as the cancer was confirmed, Kim was shuffled along to the next stage; making sure the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else in her body.
Kim found herself on the road at 6am the next day, on her way to another doctor who was available to get her a PET scan. She couldn’t believe that less than 12 hours earlier she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, when earlier that day her life was moving along normally. Kim’s husband had to go to work that Saturday. So, she sat in the car alone, texting a friend in Hong Kong who could comfort her virtually on her way to what could potentially be more damning news. While most of the other people in the waiting room were surrounded by their large families, Kim waited by herself. The small interactions to follow were enough to become defining moments of Kim’s breast cancer experience.
“I'm alone. And I was just silently weeping in the waiting room, and a really kind lady came over and she goes 'do you have family here?' ...so, I said no, and she just put her arm around me, and I was just crying. It was so moving, you know?” Kim said, her voice wavering. “I [was] so thankful - I don't even know if I said thank you to her, in hind sight, but psychically almost every day I say 'Thank you, lady!' ...because she was really there in my time of need.”
Acts of kindness like these turned out to light up what could’ve been a dark and disorderly breast cancer experience. Kim only had two days to prepare for her lumpectomy; the Saturday and Sunday between her Friday PET scan and Monday operation. She remembers attending a multi-cultural festival at her six-and-a-half-year-old son’s international school that Sunday, and keeping her breast cancer from the fellow parents.
“I didn't want to tell anyone. It's just weird - 'Hi, how are you? Oh yeah, I have breast cancer'...So I didn't feel comfortable telling anyone, and I just had the surgery the next day.”
While the lumpectomy went smoothly, doctors found three cancer cells near her lymph nodes that needed removal. Although she had the utmost faith in her doctors, the rapidity of Kim’s treatment experience still made the decision feel rushed and groggy. However, when faced with chemo versus a second operation, Kim knew what to decide.
“I couldn't stand the feeling that three cells were already there and maybe more were travelling but we didn't know,” Kim said. “So, I went for the second surgery, and that was the worst. Just the worst. I don't take anesthesia very well, so I was already groggy and feeling bad, literally I cried all the way to the operating theater.”
Just like that, Kim’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment all happened within five days. She described her whirlwind experience as seeming like a “sitcom” to an outsider – the speed of the process, the straightforwardness of her doctors and surgeons, and her own bewilderment from start to finish. Despite all this, Kim couldn’t help but sing the praises of her medical team, citing her surgeon’s decisiveness and “steady hands” as the reason she felt so comfortable making decisions in a hurried state. Kim insisted time and time again that she had “no complaints”, which reflects her outlook on her entire breast cancer journey.
The Ideal Situation
“In many ways it was, in my circumstance, an ideal situation,” Kim said as she reflected on her breast cancer bedlam. The hospital’s proximity to her home, the exceptional care from her doctors and surgeons, and the kindness of strangers along the way created the fabric of her brighter moments. But larger factors, like Kim’s geographic and social location, also made her situation “ideal”.
Kim contributes a large part of her treatment’s success to the fact that she was in India rather than in the U.S. Many circumstantial facets of living in India proved beneficial as a breast cancer patient. For example, as a foreign national, Kim's dependent visa prohibited her from working while living in India. Many other international parents were in the same boat, making them the perfect support system to care for her children while Kim was in the hospital. Most notably, India’s medical tourism made Kim’s healthcare highly accessible.
“Because we lived in India, we had no worries about health insurance...so every single thing was covered. We never had to worry about ‘do we have to pay this?’ I’m really thankful [my treatment was] covered. It was very, very fortunate,” Kim said, emphatically. “I used to work for a healthcare union in the U.S., so I know the struggles people in America have, like bankruptcy...they’re trying to get their darn chemo and worrying about [their] house getting taken away, so this is a thing that happens. And I know that. So [healthcare] is pretty different in the U.S. specifically.”
Kim acknowledges that her “extreme privilege” as an international resident made her healthcare access incomparable to most Indian citizens’. In fact, she recalls the look of dread in her driver’s face when she told him that she had breast cancer: “In his experience, if you do not have means, basically [breast cancer] is a death sentence. It really is,” Kim said. “So, he went to his temple, he lit things for me, he prayed for me... I kept trying to tell him, ‘Vivek, I’m going to be ok!’ But I don’t think until the very end he thought that I was going to be ok.”
Nonetheless, Kim’s thoroughly positive experience in India has made her extremely passionate about the state of healthcare here in the United States. In fact, she juxtaposed her experience with a friend and fellow breast cancer patient’s experience in Florida, who after her diagnosis in spring of 2020 was being told to “go home and try to stay healthy” as all of her surgeries were being cancelled due to the pandemic.
“My husband and I are praying that this pandemic is giving people a clue of the inequities of the system...So, we will be voting. I don’t know what else to do, [the state of U.S. healthcare] is desperate.”
Not only did Kim avoid the United States’ healthcare woes, but she also side-stepped the rigorous work culture living in the U.S. would’ve entailed despite her breast cancer. “I know, definitely, had I been living in the U.S. I would’ve for sure been working, one hundred percent,” Kim said. Her family would have been working, too, which would have made it even more difficult to find care for her children. With support systems, including fellow foreign national parents and friends, who could look after her kids while she was in the hospital, Kim had a lot less to worry about while undergoing treatment in India than she would have had she been living in America.
“It was just very nice to know that I didn’t HAVE to do anything. I could do what I wanted; if I wanted to lie in my bed and cry all afternoon, that was no problem...And just knowing that I could call upon [my friends] comfortably, and knowing that I would do the same for them in a reverse situation.”
Sharing Strength and Gratitude
Now, almost six years cancer-free, Kim’s breast cancer has become something of a distant memory. “I can mostly spend days forgetting that I ever had cancer, which is just unbelievable to me,” she said with a laugh. However, she does still cry tears of relief after her annual follow-up tests; “There’s no reason to think [the cancer will come back], but you just never know.” While looking back at her journey, Kim mostly recalls what she’s been grateful for then and now.
“I always like to look at the bright side of things, if possible...So when I got this diagnosis, I really...I felt like I was going to be ok, no matter what happened I was going to be ok,” Kim said, tears welling up in her eyes. “And I really realized that, you know, I am actually an optimistic person, because here’s me getting some of the worst news that anybody could get, and I still felt thankful. I was thankful for the doctor, thankful for the insurance, thankful to all my friends, thankful to my family for supporting me. That lady that came over during the PET scan, you know all these people helping me, unknowingly even. My driver giving the offering at the Hindu temple. It’s unbelievable, the kindness of some people. I was just very grateful, and that was also a good lesson for me, too, to continue to increase my gratitude.”
To Kim, “increasing her gratitude” consists of finding ways to karmically spread the same level of kindness that she received from individuals along her journey. She prefers reaching out to family, friends, and even acquaintances who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to extend her support rather than attending communal breast cancer events. “I guess that’s why I lean more towards to individual than the group, because for me, that’s what other people did for me,” Kim explained.
In addition to gratitude, Kim has also found that breast cancer has granted her a much deeper appreciation for her body. Having grown up in Japan and seen women of all ages, shapes, and sizes in bath houses as a young girl, Kim never felt beholden to one particular body image. In 2013, two years before her diagnosis, Kim had embarked on a journey of physical fitness that pushed her to not only embrace her body’s looks, but its strength. Exercising regularly and pushing her body’s capabilities led to a “massive revelation” on her self-image.
"That new revolutionary image of myself kind of took over, so I was no longer [looking at] stomach fat, or saggy arms. I was more like ‘I am a person that is strong and healthy.’ So, when my breast was cut, I figured, well, that’s not a muscle... Because my body image had changed so massively, I knew that I didn’t need to focus on [my breasts]; this was not me,” Kim said, her posture reflecting the pride in her voice. “It took me 40-odd years to get this image of ‘I am not the sporty one’ out of my mind. And I’m so thankful that it happened prior to my surgery. Of course, I’d like to have no cancer scar, but I have it, and I survived. I can continue on.”
And continue on, Kim does. She continues spreading love to fellow breast cancer survivors. She continues encouraging her peers in the U.S. to vote for better healthcare. Most importantly, she continues to remind people that no matter how positive an overall breast cancer experience may seem, small gestures of kindness—like the ones that lightened up her journey—can make or break someone’s spirit. After all, “it’s still cancer.”
“A lot of times we try to make it sound not so bad when you’re in the middle of it, but it really sucks. It’s not great. At all. Your body changes, you can't do what you used to do easily when you’re in the middle of it, going to the hospital—who wants to go to the hospital every day? Not me,” Kim said. “Even when people say they’re ok, they’re probably not. So, if you can think of a small kindness...even a word, a message, a bunch if flower emojis or something. Just know that people still need support.”
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