Cheryl Ash-Simpson On Being Diagnosed With Breast Cancer Days Before Her Wedding: “We Didn’t Tell Anybody”
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview a wonderful woman by the name of Cheryl Ash-Simpson about her life. Back in 2009, she had so much to look forward to, including watching her daughter graduate from high school, and getting married to the love of her life. But her world and her celebrations were halted when Simpson found out that she had breast cancer. Add to that the stress of finding out that her family would have to move to Malaysia for her husband’s work as she continued to battle this disease. Now 52, cancer-free and still living in and loving Malaysia, Simpson talks about her journey and documenting it in her upcoming film, Sunshine, Noodles and Me. She also discusses what she learned about herself and Malaysia since her life changed in ’09.
If She Had Symptoms Or Felt Pain Before Her Diagnosis:
Actually, I was driving home from work one day and I just felt across my right breast and I thought I felt something, but I wasn’t quite sure. I ended up going to one of my doctors who actually handles my blood pressure medicine and never even checks my breasts and he said, ‘You should go get a mammogram.’ I thought that was odd. ‘Why is he telling me that?’ But I thought maybe that was God sending me to go get this mammogram, because it wasn’t time yet to get my mammogram. I usually get them in October and this was August, so it hadn’t even been a year yet. So I went to get my mammogram and insurance didn’t want to pay for it because it hadn’t been a year. I said ‘that’s okay, I still want you to check.’ So they did the mammogram and they didn’t find anything. But I have dense breasts. I have fibrocystic breasts, so I told them to do an MRI also. They did an MRI and didn’t see anything so I told them to keep looking. After about five minutes of continuing to look they did find what they called a ‘suspicious mass’ and it was hiding under a fibroid that I had for years. So she said, ‘Well, we need to biopsy it.’ At that point I didn’t really get alarmed because I’d had suspicious masses before, because of my breasts. I didn’t think much about it other than the fact that I was getting ready to get married, and I didn’t want the scar from the biopsy to affect my dress.
How She Found Out She Had Breast Cancer:
We do the biopsy and it turns out to be cancer and I get that three days before I’m getting ready to get married. We didn’t tell anybody. I told my husband. I told my maid of honor and one of the other attendees because we didn’t want it to turn into anything less than the positive event that it started out to be. We didn’t want to bring everybody down, so we just held it together.
Two weeks after we came back from the honeymoon, we did the first surgery. I opted for a lumpectomy. My margins weren’t clear so we had to go back in two weeks later and do another lumpectomy and then I received good margins.
Moving To Malaysia While Battling Cancer:
We had two surgeries, then we started chemo. I did about four months of chemo and radiation and I continued on with a drug called herceptin. As I’m finishing the herceptin, my husband finds out that we needed to move to Malaysia. I stayed back a year because our daughter was a senior in high school. I decided to stay back and commute from Malaysia to Texas, where we were, to make sure that she was able to graduate. After she graduated and got into college, I started looking for a job in Malaysia and actually found one in Singapore. It was stressful.
By the time I got to Malaysia, I wasn’t on anymore chemicals. I still take a drug called Aramidex that you’re supposed to take every day for at least five years, and I’ve been on it for three. And we’re going to assess when I get to the five-year mark if I’m going to have to continue taking it. When I moved here I was done with all the major chemicals, but part of me taking the job I took was me saying, ‘I can’t take the job unless I can go back every four months to do my checkups,’ so they let me go back every four months, and I’ve graduated to every six months.
How It Felt To Be Told That She Was In Remission:
It was a blessing and it made me feel like, I’m definitely going to enjoy each day. And it made me realize how important family and friends are. I made a commitment to myself that I wasn’t going to miss anymore family events because it was that important to me. It also made me realize that I wanted to get the message out to other women about how important it is to listen to your body and take care of yourself. A lot of the times we find out as African-American women that we have breast cancer when it’s already in later stages. If we’re more proactive about it then it’s possible that you can find out about it earlier and possibly survive longer.
Watching Her Mother Beat Breast Cancer:
She was diagnosed before me. She’s now 78 and she was diagnosed at 69. She was diagnosed at a very early stage, like maybe stage 0 or I. My stage was IIA. We’re both survivors, thank God. If I had waited or skipped a year for my mammogram, we might not be having this interview.
What She’s Learned About Herself:
I learned that ultimately, you’re not in control. With any type of cancer, you’re not in control. You must put your trust and faith in God and try to enjoy something every day because you’re not steering the ship. When you realize that you become more relaxed and at peace.
What She Loves About Malaysia:
I love the sunshine, because it’s sunny most days. I love interacting with people from all over the world. You learn about their culture and you learn that everyone is on a journey too. You get to interact with them and be a part of their journey. And I love the food! You can’t say you live over here and not love the food. In America when you see someone they say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ Over here they say, ‘Have you taken your lunch? Have you taken your dinner?’ [laughs] It’s all about the food.
How Sunshine, Noodles and Me Came About:
I wanted to document my journey from going through breast cancer to moving to Malaysia and working in Singapore. I wanted to show people that you can go through adversity but through the power of prayer and positive thinking, you can still enjoy life and come out smiling on the other side. As long as you’re still here and you’re still breathing, you can enjoy life. I contacted Joyce Fitzpatrick, who is my producer and an old friend from high school. I said ‘hey, you have got to see where I’m living.’ That was the first thing. Because some of the things that happen in Malaysia are quite different from anything you’re familiar with in the U.S. So I really wanted to get that piece documented and I wanted to talk about the fact that you can be a survivor and you can make it through to have an adventure.
You can check out the trailer for Sunshine, Noodles and Me below, and if you’re interested in checking it out, there will be a premiere screening in LA on November 9 (at the Downtown Independent at 4 p.m.), and other screenings in Indianapolis and Dallas. If you want more information on the film, you can follow it on Facebook, Instagram (@SunshineNoodlesandMe) and Twitter (@SunNoodlesandMe).