I had cancer amid the coronavirus epidemic

Hong Kong (CNN) — I moved to Hong Kong on the day of a huge protest marking China’s National Day on October 1 and thought it might probably be the wildest experience I’d have all year. Two months later, all through Hanukkah, I found out that I had breast cancer. So, while the world wide coronavirus crisis was the most challenging thing that happened to nearly everyone else on the planet in 2020, it barely made my top five.

I had known my life would change, however, not this way. My plan contains picking up my decade-plus life in New York City and relocating it to the other side of the world.

The first two months were occupied with logistics — finding a flat, figuring out just how to pay bills, learning which bus route was the best so you can get to the CNN office every day. Too worn out to go sightseeing, I told myself that once I was settled in my new place I could throw myself in to getting to know the city in earnest.

I found the apartment. And then soon after moving in I found another thing — a lump within my right breast. It felt like a large, flat, heavy stone had sprouted overnight inside me.

Within a week’s time there is a flurry of appointments — mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, results, referral. But I knew what it was before anyone explained. I knew it within my deepest self, like once you understand I’m in love.

On the day of a CNN Hong Kong holiday party, I got the news I’d been anticipating — stage 2B, requiring six months of chemotherapy, accompanied by surgery and radiation. I told my parents, a 13-hour time difference away, over email.

My sister, who had never set foot in Asia before, flew out of the US to be with me for the first a couple of weeks of my treatment in early January. After arriving, jet lagged from a Raleigh – San Francisco – Tokyo – Hong Kong itinerary that took a complete day, she walked in to my apartment and went straight to cleaning vomit.

Before cancer, I was not somebody who liked inspirational quotes or go-get-’em-tiger speeches. After cancer, I still wasn’t. But one thing my disease did was force me to let go of a number of my insecurities.

There was no longer the option of hiding away when I felt self-conscious. The person I took baths with as a toddler was now watching me provide 20 times a day, and she was not judging me for it. By the time I got my diagnosis, it felt like easily a third of Hong Kong’s medical personnel had seen me topless. And soon my friends would see me in my most vulnerable states — with mouth sores, hemorrhoids, sickness, and muscle numbness — and still desired to hang out with me anyway.

As I sent my sister off on her get back flight home, I did not know that I was racing an invisible clock. We all were.

The virus outside, the illness inside

A couple of weeks into my treatment, we started hearing news at the office about a new virus wending its way through China. Our bureau chief sent us all to work from our tiny high-rise flats. All the public Lunar New Year events in the city were canceled.

At the period, many Hongkongers — myself included — thought city officials were being overly cautious as a result of how defectively SARS had been handled. People weren’t wearing masks unless they certainly were sick, there have been no mandatory temperature checks, and most organizations remained open.

Several friends planned trips to Hong Kong to go to me and help out. But as coronavirus loomed and Asia began locking it self up, every flight was canceled one at a time.

My hair started falling out in clumps two weeks in to chemo, around Lunar New Year. I decided to just bite the bullet and shave all of it off. Every salon within my neighborhood was closed — I assumed because of the holiday, as everyone in the city gets per week off — except for one barbershop. The barber looked confused and surprised to see a woman walk in. He did not speak any English and I did not speak any Cantonese, so we communicated through the Google Translate app on my phone.

The author at the Jade Market in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Courtesy Lilit Marcus

“It’s bad luck to cut your hair during New Year,” that he typed straight back.

“I already have bad luck,” I replied. When he shook his head no again, I pulled up the characters for “cancer.” He immediately nodded and surely got to work.

Ten minutes later, I was bald. The barber did not charge me.

“I’m sorry,” that he typed. That would be among the countless times I heard those words over the next six months. Yet what I couldn’t articulate yet was that I didn’t have a pity party. I felt lucky. Lucky to have medical care, to have a supportive Hong Kong community — many of whom were the CNN colleagues I’d only met — and to have a good longterm prognosis. Sure, it felt surreal. But in 2020, everything felt surreal.

I’d wondered how I would explain my new check out everyone at the office, but coronavirus made that irrelevant. Our bureau made a decision to remain closed indefinitely as the virus spread.

This special Hong Kong tour offers travelers a chance to see one of the world’s busiest ports in close proximity.

A travel editor who doesn’t travel

Even when I was sickness and sleeping 10 or 12 hours a day, my travel itch still desired to be scratched. I’d in the offing to make the most of Hong Kong’s central location and exceptional airport in order to explore more places in Asia, so that as an editor of CNN’s Travel section I also hoped to report from different locations. In the US, it had been normal for me personally to fly at least once monthly. Suddenly, that has been no longer an alternative for me — or anybody.

Another friend who had recently moved from the US to Hong Kong became my partner in local adventures that we organized every time I felt sufficiently to venture out. We took ferries out to small islands nearby, Po Toi and Cheung Chau. Though museums along with other businesses were closed, we had most of Hong Kong’s rich outdoor life to select from. We proceeded hikes, swam in the ocean, climbed hills, explored temples.

Covid-19 was, ironically, the perfect cover to be ill. My oncologist explained to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and protect myself once my defense mechanisms was compromised, and then over night it was like the whole city had cancer alongside me. None of my colleagues knew I was answering emails from my oncologist’s office instead of my desk or that my cheery social networking statuses were mostly smoke and mirrors. The costly wig I’d picked out for office wear only made occasional appearances on Zoom calls. Contact-free grocery delivery became the norm as coronavirus continued. And sometimes, just sometimes, whole days passed when I forgot I was sick.

Though I couldn’t backpack through Laos or chill on the beach in Bali, I got the gift of getting to learn my new home much better than I’d expected. One week-end, a group of us tackled the famous Dragon’s Back hike on the southwest stretch of Hong Kong Island. At the end, we arrived at a beach, and despite it being March it was already warm enough to get into the water. I’d brought a bathing cap along only for this particular occasion but instead I tugged it off and jumped, bald and blissful, into the sea.

This year, I learned the word joss, or luck. A colleague whom I’d confided in brought over some red joss paper printed with flowers and pineapples — to represent growth and prosperity — as a New Year’s gift. You’re supposed to burn up it being an offering to your ancestors, but I didn’t have the heart to do it and hung it through to my apartment wall as an alternative. It felt like I was residing in the eye of a hurricane. In a city of seven and a half million people, only four died of the virus. My Hong Kong bubble was packed with joss.

Finding joy in an unexpected place

People believe cancer enables you to wise. Just look at all the TV martyrs thin and pale and bald and saintly, dispensing life lessons before dying quietly — Dr Mark Greene on ER, who died nobly on a beach trip in his lover’s arms, was my first pop culture experience with cancer.

There’s something about obtaining a close-up look at your own personal mortality that’s supposed to allow you to profound. But the the fact is that sometimes people just get sick. Nice people get sick and stay nice. Rude people get sick and stay rude.

That was one of the reasons I was reluctant to share my diagnosis with people, particularly once coronavirus loomed. Internet commenters argued about whether coronavirus was real, or who “deserved” to get it. Despite the relative safety of Hong Kong, with everyone in masks, I still felt slightly paranoid every time I left my apartment. Better to be ill in secret, I thought, than to have to reside vulnerably in public places.

In April, when I was four months in to chemo, Hong Kong recorded a week straight of zero new coronavirus cases. The restrictions applied started to lift slowly. Restaurants could fill to capacity again so long as they put dividers between tables, and maximum crowd sizes went from four people to eight.

The city woke up, and so did I. My hair grew back slowly, in patches — legs first, eyebrows, armpits. I watched videos of cancer patients in the US ringing bells to celebrate their last chemo session. But all I desired to do was walk out in to the light like it was just a normal Wednesday. Sometimes it is like all the time I had cancer was a weird dream. The world closed down, I shut myself within my apartment, and everything stood still. It got too hot to wear wigs, so I just started being bald in public. Occasionally people stared, but nearly all of the time everyone treated me like I was a woman who just happened not to have hair.

If you’d asked me last year what I expected my big proceed to Hong Kong to resemble, I might have talked about all the cool trips I was going to consume Asia and the crazy adventures I’d get up to in the city. But life, as the expression goes, is what happens if you are busy making other plans.

Getting sick during coronavirus, and still to be able to get top-notch medical care and go about living my life, reminded me that there’s joy in the every day. Being in a position to grocery look for myself was a gift. Going out for a walk was something to celebrate instead of a mundane task. Cancer showed me just what a strange, lovely miracle it’s to go to sleep at night and see you’ve woken up again in the morning.

Seasons changed. The sun rose and set. My cyst shrank so much I was scheduled for a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy. Children returned to school. And life, as it has a tendency to do, kept moving.