In a five-year span, Munira Premji was diagnosed with not one, not two, but three different kinds of cancer. For many of us, that’s an unthinkable situation. For Munira, it’s reality.
She said her family was a constant source of support as she went through treatment. She learned how to embrace optimism. She even says that in some ways, cancer has been a gift, helping her live more intentionally than ever.
Munira spoke with Healthing.ca about her experience.
It’s hard to imagine one cancer diagnosis, let alone three. How did you first get diagnosed?
I was completely, absolutely healthy my entire life. I played hard and worked hard. And then in 2012, I started to notice that I was getting really, really tired, which was not normal for me, because I’m generally extremely high-energy. I started to lose weight and have night sweats. And at first, I didn’t think much of it. I thought perhaps I was just going through menopause.
But the symptoms continued. So I went to my doctor, and I said, something doesn’t feel right in my body. They did some blood work and realized that my hemoglobin had dropped considerably. For a normal woman, hemoglobin is anywhere from 120 to 160. And I think mine had dropped to like, 80. They said, ‘You need to go to emergency right away.’
So I did, and they gave me a blood transfusion. I thought that might be the end of it, but the symptoms continued, so I went back to emergency. There were all these hematologists around me. They took test after test after test… vial after vial of blood. I was getting a bit concerned at this point.
They kept me in emergency for a couple of days. And then two days later, the doctor came into the room my husband and I were in. And he basically said, you have multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. It was really quite scary, you know. It’s just not good news.
And so while we were still coping with this news, I get a call from Princess Margaret [Cancer Centre, a hospital in Toronto], saying ‘You have to come back to the hospital right away for additional tests.’ One week later, I was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue. All within a week.
This cancer was incredibly aggressive, very fast-moving and it had spread outside the lymphatic system. So the myeloma was stage three, the lymphoma was stage four.
And then while I was battling those cancers and going through treatment in December 2015, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.
It must have been unbelievable to be several years into battling two cancers and then find another one.
When I told my husband that I felt a lump in my breast, I remember his reaction was almost one of denial. He said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”
What was it like emotionally?
It was devastating. I also went through denial, and I went through a period of anger, and depression.
For me, it was the losses that I experienced. The loss of work, because I was not well enough to continue work. There was the loss of energy, the loss of stamina, the loss of social life, because I was so immunocompromised, that it was not safe for me to be out and about with people. It was the loss of hair.
Each loss was like a punch in the gut. Not being able to work as an independent consultant meant that my income dropped significantly after the cancers, to 20 per cent of what I was used to earning. There was also the lack of purpose, because I did not have a work place to go or work to do when I woke up in the morning. That played havoc for my sense of self-worth. My social life was flourishing prior to the cancers. During treatment, I had to be away from people because of the risk of infection when my body was so fragile. It was a lonely time.
The losses were so, so, so, many. And I literally had to build myself back one cell at a time, and find out again who I was in the midst of all this.
It took me a while to get to that place of acceptance — you know, yes, this is my lot. And rather than waste energy on what I cannot control, I can move to radical acceptance, and then it was like, okay, we’ve got this now.
It sounds like you’re describing the stages of grief.
It’s very much the same. It’s interesting, because I’m an HR practitioner by profession. So with my family, what I did is I sat them down, and I walked them through the stages of grief. And we had a really wonderful conversation, because each one of them were at different stages.
The whole idea was: We can’t live in depression, we cannot live in anger, we need to move toward acceptance. I thinkt that language really helped, because it enabled us to kind of talk through it.
Did you think that you were going to die at any point during your experience?
I have often been scared. The reality is that I am living on borrowed time.
But I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to live for eight years with with the myeloma. It will rear its ugly head again, because there is no cure. The difference, though, is the death no longer scares me.
Every day that I’m alive, is a day to be lived fully. I’ve come to accept that this will happen when it does, but I’m certainly not waiting for it. I am living in this moment, every day, without, worrying about regrets and without worrying about what might happen in the future. And I think I’ve really found this beautiful space in this moment, in the present, that’s enabling me to be unbelievably joyful.
Cancer has really been a gift for me. You know, it’s enabled me to think about what’s really important to me. Where do I want to spend my time and what do I want my legacy to be here? And what is my purpose? You know, I don’t really like to say this aloud too often, but for me, it is a gift that keeps on giving. I’m no longer walking through life like a zombie. Every step I take is intentional.
That’s fantastic to hear. I think that one of the keys to happiness is really just being able to live in the moment. What gives you hope?
I am obsessively grateful. I’m living in gratitude. Gratitude for living in Canada, with its publicly-funded health. Gratitude to be surrounded by people that I love and protect, who love me. And I don’t think I did this before. I took my life for granted. But now I notice what’s going on around me.
The other thing is intentionally choosing hope. So when I think about hope, I think it’s about seeing light with your heart, when all around you is darkness. It’s really about trusting.
Tell me about the book you wrote about your story.
It’s called One Woman, Three Cancers. And what I love about this book is it tells my story, but more importantly, the stories of my family. So my daughter and my husband and my son have all written chapters.
And I had no idea what they were really going through until I read what they had written. There were a lot of tears shed. The stories are raw. They are real. It really talks about what the experience was like for my loved ones.
I’ve heard you’re participating in the Weekend to Conquer Cancer.
I’ve been participating in this walk from the very beginning. I think we have raised something like $75,000 so far.
Nearly one in two Canadians will get cancer in their lifetime. And those numbers are daunting. So I do this walk to raise funds for cancer research, which is so critical. From the time that I was diagnosed with myeloma to today — the amount of research and the different treatments that have become available, even in the last five years, is mind-boggling.
So, I walk because of those people who don’t currently have cancer, who will get cancer in their lifetime. I walk for my friends who’ve lost a battle with cancer.
Because of the pandemic, the walk this year is virtual. You can walk alone, you can walk with a team. And what’s really fantastic is when you walk, you’re not walking alone. Your doctors are working with you. Your spouse, your loved ones — they’re walking with you.
You can donate to Munira’s Weekend to Conquer Cancer team here.