moving forward:
life after a cancer diagnosis


words by tiffany leung

photography by roxana ciocsan



At age 28 I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

At the time I was diagnosed, I was living life at my fullest; I was just recently engaged to the love of my life and my career was really taking off.

It has taken me a year to digest and want to share my story to the public… actually as I am writing this, I am not even sure this is what I want to do. I guess it is all a process. I soon realized that actual trauma and reflection happens after medical treatment and surgeries when you see things more clearly. However, this is not what people expect. 


(Taken a week after my first surgery – on the surface, I am happy and healthy)

Cancer doesn’t make you want to slap on an Instagram filter, put a ribbon on it, and share it with the world. It’s not a marathon medal – you don’t want to be part of this club. It wasn’t my choice and I wouldn’t call it a gift, though I had the “good” cancer. It makes you want to hide from the world, especially when you are twenty-something and recently engaged… to the outside world you are living in the peak of your life… in love, with a career that you love and living abroad. I guess that is what social media is for our generation though. We use Instagram to highlight our best selves, but maybe sometimes it’s okay to show a bit of vulnerability on a perfect, filtered platform. I remember I felt ashamed and weak when I scrolled through and tried to find refuge within the online young cancer community. There were so many brave faces that shared their stories on Instagram and blogs such as the #breastie network. And though my career is in digital and social media, I felt the opposite; I wanted to hide what I was going through, and only consume all the “help.” When I talked to my therapist about it, she put it into a good perspective for me: I was just simply not ready and the “brave faces” were, and she was right. Most of them have climbed and been through the journey and then contribute back to the community as a knowledge base to help and inspire “new cancer patients,” and it is okay.


When you tell people you are a cancer patient, people look at and treat you differently. They start telling you that you're a warrior and you are so strong. In the cancer community you even have identities you put on your Instagram bio like  “thriver” and “warrior” before becoming a “survivor.” But I have never felt that way, like a “thriver” or a “warrior.” To me, I was just doing what I could do to survive and save my life.

The thing is, I felt healthy before I was diagnosed. I was practicing hot yoga at least 4 times a day, ate organic food and had an active lifestyle. If someone didn’t tell me I was sick, I wouldn’t know – I didn’t feel sick. I think the twisted part of all of it is what made me weak was the surgery and chemo and treatment that is supposed to save your life in the long run but at the same time has destroyed my body like never before. The first few times I received chemotherapy, I was having a full on anxiety attack, my body and mind was not aligned. I felt sick just walking the halls of the oncology ward. I was shaking and couldn’t breath as I approached my chemo suite. My body was telling me no as I watched the bright red chemo going into my bloodstream and I could feel the poison entering my body immediately. You smell and taste it and I had to train myself to let me brain takeover that this is actually saving my life. 

“When you tell people you are a cancer patient, people look at and treat you differently. They start telling you that you're a warrior and so strong... But I have never felt that way. To me, I was just doing what I could do to survive and save my life.”

Now I have lived to tell the tale, and am a bit braver and a bit more resilient… After the last round surgeries, my double mastectomy, as of March 6th, I am now cancer free. 


When I came across Suleika Jaouad‘s 2019 TED Talk, it really resonated with me. In particular:

“We talk about reentry to society in the context of war and incarceration. But we don't talk about it as much in the context of other kinds of traumatic experiences, like an illness. Because no one had warned me of the challenges of reentry, I thought something must be wrong with me. I felt ashamed, and with great guilt, I kept reminding myself of how lucky I was to be alive at all, when so many people with my diagnosed might have a terminal diagnosis. But on most days, I woke up feeling so sad and lost, I could barely breathe. I hate to say it but sometimes I even miss the hospital appointments. In the hospital ecosystem, like me, everyone in there was broken. But out here, among the living, I felt like an impostor, overwhelmed and unable to function... I am now 29 years old  trying to go back to “normal” life but my whole perspective has changed. I didn't have treatment protocols or discharge instructions to help guide my way forward.”
– Suleika Jaouad

“We talk about reentry to society in the context of war and incarceration. But we don't talk about it as much in the context of other kinds of traumatic experiences, like an illness.”


From my personal story, a complementary holistic health approach to the medical solution was my balance with my cancer treatment along with a set of digital and health tools. Such as: utilizing social media to connect with a small percentage of English-speaking women who have been through or are going through the same health struggle with me, to combining mental health treatments such as therapy, yoga, and meditation throughout chemotherapy. However, I soon realized this approach applies outside my diagnoses. Balance with the right set of tools is needed more than ever for humanity. As today’s society paints threats with rapidly evolving technology with artificial intelligence and tailored social media ads. We are thirsty for making our lives easier with 2-hr Amazon Prime shipping yet afraid that our jobs are at risk and unprepared for the future workforce. All these concerns are especially familiar to me because of my line of work, but I have never seen it clearer that balance, along with the right tools, is what we need to navigate the unexpected, because sometimes expectation is arbitrary. I hope through the process of me sharing my journey, people can reflect and apply to any challenges they go through personally and help that paint a new perspective on the unexpected future each and one of us holds at one point in our lives.