Sanam Zomorodi: cancer at 27
Fire and Rain
For Sanam Zomorodi, fire in the belly is a hard-won virtue … an innate spark stoked by winds of resiliency and brought to fiery fruition as life delivered the storms.
Born in Iran, Sanam and her two older sisters might have been relegated to a life of insufferable oppression, but their mother stood firm on her refusal to raise daughters in a land that promised to diminish them; hence, in 1998, the Zomorodi family uprooted and moved to Alberta. If leaving behind a country of family and friends and arriving in Red Deer at the tender age of nine was difficult for Sanam, the now thirty-some year-old woman gives this era of her life a dismissive wave. Subsequent storms would top this one.
“If you know about Iran, you know why we are here and not there. I guess it wasn’t easy but we managed. And hey! I got to be the first immigrant to deliver the valedictorian speech at my high school graduation,” she said with a point of pride.
Beyond high school, Sanam claimed overachievement as her saving grace – her way of standing her ground in the world and feeding the burgeoning fire in her belly. “I was so focussed on my education I would often skip family gatherings and time with my fiends to study. I always had to do my best,” she said.
And best she did. Sanam studied chemical engineering at U of C and went to work in the energy sector. When that didn’t quite hit her ‘best’ mark, she applied and got accepted to do a master’s degree in resource and environmental management at Dalhousie University. This was not her career endgame though … a lover of animals and nature, Sanam dreamed of becoming an environmental lawyer; an added means of standing her ground with literal invocation.
But all of this forward motion came to a thundering halt when, at age 27, while finishing her master’s degree and making plans to study law at U of C, Sanam became desperately unwell; most notably – unable to breathe.
“I felt terrible. My breathing was so bad I could barely stand and walk. Even talking to my mom on the phone I had a hard time breathing. I thought I had just pushed too hard and this was a bad cold or maybe an infection. I needed to get some antibiotics to clear it up,” she said.
At a medical clinic a doctor suggested a myriad of possibilities … stress, hard work, depression, sadness at being far away from home. In the end Sanam was sent away with Benadryl – an over the counter allergy medication, and a warning to go to hospital if her breathing got worse.
“That night, I took the Benadryl and tried to sleep but I couldn’t breathe. I felt delusional, like an out of body experience. In the middle of the night, I texted my sister and said ‘I’m going to the hospital’,’” she said.
At the hospital Sanam once again found herself being shuffled into the realm of sickness oblivion. She heard things like “you’re young … give it a week.” While she had every intention of making it to her 8 AM class, Sanam found herself roused to a stricken state self protection and with all the breath she could summon, she told doctors she was not leaving without a chest X-ray.
That’s when they found the air sucking culprit.
Sanam was alone when the doctors delivered the mind-blowing news that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A tumour pressing on her main artery was the reason she couldn’t breathe. If she had left the hospital without the X-ray and made it to her morning class, chances are she would have suffered a massive heart attack … it was that close.
Sanam was immediately thrust into treatment at Nova Scotia Cancer Centre and admitted to a heavily guarded ward with immune compromised blood cancer patients whose survival from stem cell transplants depended on a sterile atmosphere. Here she was completely isolated, alone and afraid.
Sunshine on a Cloudy Day
In the four weeks that followed, aside from an astute team of oncologists, radiologists, chemotherapy nurses, and so on … it was the hospital’s ‘Sunshine Room’ that saved Sanam’s life. Or at the very least, sheltered her from this storm.
“The Sunshine Room is like a micro Wellspring embedded in the hospital,” she said. “It is this place cancer patients can go and get a massage or reiki after chemo treatment. You can do art, or take a yoga class – they even have a hair salon and wigs for after you’ve lost your hair or had your head shaved,” she said.
For Sanam, the Sunshine Room meant the world.
“This should have been a horrendous experience – stuck in a hospital with cancer, far away from home, my whole life derailed. But for some reason it wasn’t that bad. The Sunshine Room made such a huge difference. It gave me something to look forward to. A reiki treatment felt like fun. Going to the hairdresser felt like a treat. Even my mom could join for a massage.” she said, adding. “Honestly, if I didn’t have that room right there in the hospital, I think I would have gone totally out of my mind.”
Back in Calgary, Sanam continued with chemo and radiation, but she did not seek out supports outside of her family and friend circle. No longer held captive by hospital walls, Sanam felt a strong urge to return to ‘real life’ and that meant liberating herself from cancer.
“This is how I am – it’s the mindset I was raised with. A lot of middle eastern people don’t talk about their feelings, so when I had cancer, even my mom didn’t want to make a big deal out of it – like it was a cold that I could get over,” she said. “This is why it was so important that I had the Sunshine Room when I was in the hospital. It was exactly the right thing at the right time.”
When treatment finished and cancer was pronounced at bay, Sanam returned to Nova Scotia and finished her master’s degree, but her lofty ambitions for law school were dampened by the aftershock of cancer shaking her world. Instead, she returned to her engineering job in Calgary … the same job, but not the same Sanam.
In the months that followed treatment, as Sanam coasted into her 30s and made it to her five-year cancer milestone, some things returned to ‘normal,’ but nothing will ever be the same.
“Getting cancer at such a young age really puts things in perspective. Before you get sick you think you can do anything you want. You think you have an infinite amount of time to be with the people you love. But you actually can’t and don’t. It can disappear overnight” she said. “I see everything differently now. I am a very different person. I know what matters and I don’t have much patience or tolerance for things that don’t.”
If the road forward is less than direct for Sanam, it doesn’t seem to matter. She has found her solid ground and the courage to stand and be fiery on it.
“We all get cards, and cancer was a card I was dealt. It changed me. Now I know the value of life.”
Standing With Wellspring
When Wellspring Alberta put out the call for volunteers to join its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Roundtable, some of the pre-requisites were:
- Knowledge, living or lived experience with marginalization, racism, significant barriers to accessing community-based supportive care or the health care system,
- having had a cancer experience either as someone with a diagnosis or as a caregiver, and
- want to participate in a safe and brave roundtable space.
Sanam Zomorodi answered the call and now proudly serves on this Committee. Here is her reflection of why and what it means to her:
“When I thought of joining this committee, I knew there were a few ways I could contribute to the conversation, but for me, the most important was not as an immigrant, but as a person diagnosed with cancer and forced to stay in hospital. Being in hospital posed a significant barrier to accessing community-based supportive care. This would have been devastating for me if it were not for Wellspring-type services offered right in the hospital. I know there are many others who have experienced this total isolation in hospital and I want to provide a voice for them.”