True Grit. A series of conversations with people on Mental Health and Resilience.
Episode 1: Kassandra Kassim. Founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of UNRESERVED
Brought to you by Etiqa
The pandemic has left a devastating effect on the world. The virus has affected so many lives. Families have lost loved ones or had to deal with the medical effects of the virus. Many have lost their jobs or companies. What is less visible, however, is the hidden cost of the pandemic: the toll it has taken on people’s mental health. People are dealing with the pain of loss, the anxiety of uncertain futures, the financial stress of losing a job, being at home with the entire family 24/7, and for some there is the sadness and confusion of isolation. Mental health in all its variations was already a rising issue before Covid-19 shook the world, but it has become even more relevant today.
UNRESERVED decided to talk to a few people, to dive deeper into the subject of mental health, and to find out what it takes to show resilience and courage in the face of challenges and uncertainties. In the next coming weeks, we will publish videos and articles of these conversations that we hope can serve as a point of inspiration for everyone struggling with mental issues, however big or small.
We are bringing you this series together with Etiqa, a leading ASEAN insurance and takaful player, that is one of the few insurers that recognises mental illness as an illness that can be covered by insurance and takaful. Hosting the interviews is Azran Osman-Rani, Founder and CEO of Naluri, a digital health program that addresses health in an integrated way.
To kick it off, Azran interviews our very own CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Kassandra Kassim, as she is the reason for this series; she was diagnosed with breast cancer, just before Covid-19 disrupted the world. The lockdown was both a blessing and a curse for her. On the one hand, it created space and time to focus on the treatment and recovery. On the other, it affected her business dramatically, which led to extra stress. In this revelatory exchange with Azran, Kassandra speaks openly about her fight against the big C and steps out of her comfort zone to assume the role of an interviewee—a part to which she typically plays opposite.
Let’s start with a specific issue that you’ve gone through recently
I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer called triple-negative, which apparently only affects 10 to 15% of women who have breast cancer. They even said that chemotherapy might not actually work because it was that aggressive. It was rather daunting, and you go into that thinking ‘well, this is it’. So that was my thing last year, just before COVID hits.
Let’s go through that first day when you were diagnosed. How did it feel inside?
When you first find the lump, you’re already a bit worried. In fact, in December (2019) when I felt something, I said to my husband “I can’t deal with still grieving with daddy, dealing with the company, and dealing with this too; I have no space”, and I said, “anyway, maybe it’s just a woman’s time-of-the-month lump”. I ignored it. I read recently about the Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding; she ignored the lump too. She eventually died, and this was earlier this year. So actually, we shouldn’t ignore it. In February (2020), the lump became really big, and I thought ‘well this isn’t normal,’ and I told my sister. We went and had it checked out, and it was really weird, the feeling that I had because it’s the anticipation when you know there’s something wrong already. When the doctor said it was confirmed, I think the first thought I had was “Oh my God, we just buried daddy with this, barely a year before” and the second was “my poor family”. It was a horrible year after my father died, and now we have to deal with me.
And what were parts where you felt you were prepared for it, and what parts might have caught you off guard?
Well, the weird thing is after my father died, I kept saying “I just want to die, I just want to die”, and when I was told I had cancer, I was not surprised, because I thought “you idiot, you asked for it”. I think I wasn’t prepared for how painful chemo was. I don’t think I was prepared for the baldness that ensued after that. You wake up and there’s a nest of hair on your pillow. That was the only moment I actually really gulped and realised how physically weak I felt. I thought I could just, as usual, take it on my chin, but it was a lot tougher than that.
Let’s try to understand your initial impulses and reactions, versus how you came up with the plan that you eventually did.
Thank God I didn’t go into that denial phase. We went straight to work because they wanted us to start chemo as soon as possible. So, within a week, I agreed. It was a very aggressive course that we were going to do. Weirdly my heart was 10 to 15 years younger than my actual age, so they said, “we can give you the strongest one”, which is a good and bad thing.
I think my husband and I just looked at the data. I said, “let’s just attack this with what’s the best possible course”, and I didn’t necessarily want to listen to just one opinion—we listened to three or four, called (someone in) London before we made up our mind, and then told our doctors “This is what we’re going to do”. I think they were a little bit surprised, but I said to my husband “if there’s ever a time I’m going to be stubborn and stick to my guns, it’s going to be now”. All the best decisions I’ve made have been because I really felt 100% confident about it, so that’s how we came to that decision.
You mentioned you skipped that denial phase. Tell me about the emotions you went through.
Of course, I was angry. It just seemed really unfair to my family, after my father, that they had to deal with this too. So, I meditated every morning and I said to the lump “you’re not welcome”, “I don’t like you”, “nobody likes you”, or “my cells hate you, so eff off”.
Anger can be a very powerful emotion, but it also has to be controlled because sometimes it’s unbridled and it can affect other parts of your life. How do you do that?
Some days, not very well. But honestly, I’m probably more of a sulky puss and grumpy. There will be days when I just can’t deal with stuff. It’s hard and you do need to find a way just to reach out to something that’s good for you. So, I channeled that into making meringues. I became obsessed, and I think I made about 40-50 meringues during that time just to make something beautiful, and I threw myself into cooking. All that anger, annoyance, or whatever I was feeling, I said “if I make something beautiful, I will feel better inside”. I think, find a hobby, find something that can really take your mind off. When you’re doing stuff with your hands, and Nigella Lawson said this when I interviewed her recently, your mind doesn’t take over because you’re focused on something else. Because the mind’s such a dangerous thing, it could go places that you don’t want it to go to.
I also had advice from my coach in Singapore who said “Kass, you can’t do anything. So focus on being good to yourself, because you’re not in control, and you like to be in control, but you need to really know that you cannot. You can only control what you can”, and so I went back, and I said, “you can only control what you can”, and that was really good advice. Over time, I’ve done things from that thinking, things like I couldn’t sleep when I had chemo, so I became very reliant on melatonin, which is a herb that makes you sleep, but I realize I don’t want to be reliant on that. What can I do to control that? I read somewhere about how Navy Seals put themselves to sleep on the battlefield, and now I don’t need anything to help me sleep. I literally deep breathe, do all the exercises that Navy Seals do because if they can get through Afghanistan doing that stuff, I can go to sleep at night, you know.
You need to be responsible for your own stuff, which is why I never ask the question ‘why me?’, because that puts you into a victim mindset. I never want to be the victim. I never ever had the idea of wishing I had what somebody else has. That’s just ridiculous because that’s not even your reality. Give yourself permission to have bad days, whilst knowing tomorrow you can be stronger.
And always have a sense of humour about yourself. Take the crisis seriously, but yourself less so.
What would you do in the mornings when you wake up and you got to somehow find the energy to keep going for the day?
I looked at my diet. We tweaked stuff, we worked towards health. I became obsessed also recently with the Fitbit to see how I am doing. As I said, these are things that you can manage and things that you can actually improve by yourself, and to be honest with COVID and everyone staying home, I was really blessed and I had to count my blessings on that front, too. The stress was reduced because the entire country was locked down.
I have a fitness program now, which I’m really happy with, and I’m taking better care of myself. I always have been quite good, but this just took it to another level. I think I am a little bit more patient—not much, but even for me, a little bit more patience is probably necessary. I’m a little bit more forgiving of myself because I can be quite hard and have certain standards. So now if I think I’m having a low day, I’m just not going to see people, because what’s the point? Because you had to get yourself into the energy frame where you can be the master of the universe, or whatever it is. So, if I feel people are draining, I won’t see them.
Have you set a system in your life now? Like how do you become more deliberate in the things that you do?
Well, the weird thing is, I actually had a system in place from the time when I was about 11 when I went to boarding school in England. I used to, if you imagine, and I don’t know how many 14-or-15-year-olds wake up in the morning at 5:30, do yoga, swim 30 laps, and read a book before breakfast, or before 8:30. I was extraordinarily disciplined, timetabled everything. But I lost that sense of discipline, even sense of self, almost. So, I said “I need to go back to that…idiotic, well, not idiotic, but that 11-year-old, who’s extremely clear on what she wanted to do and scheduled everything in. I forgot about her.
As someone who is going through cancer, and having to keep the business afloat, where do you find gratitude?
You know our parents or beyond that, they’ve had to live in the jungle when the Japanese came invading, and it must have been pretty horrible. We are at home, and Grab is delivering our food and groceries. It’s not that bad, you know.
I’m an optimist. I always will be. There are things that you are thankful for. It is amazing, people don’t use it as an exercise, because it makes you feel better about yourself, and it does make you feel better about the world. It sounds namby-pamby and kind of new-age-y, but it’s actually true, it does help you.
And I am blessed to have supportive family and friends around me. That’s so important. They were always there to help, with food, advice, prayers or laughter. Even those overseas.
How do you think you’ve changed profoundly?
For the longest time, I was numb because that’s how I deal with stress, just by being numb, so you don’t feel it. I don’t need Prozac and Xanax. I do that myself naturally. But now, I’m happier, lighter, even though we’re not in great shape, because I know I can deal with stuff. I mean, I stared death in the face, we stared ruin in the face (in terms of the company), and I’m like “we came out of that, we’re still standing”. I’m still fighting. It’s cool, I can do this.
That’s inspiring. What’s the one thing you would like to share with those that can really learn from your experience?
Gosh. I think everyone has their own levels of strength. Again and again, people were telling me “Oh gosh, you’re strong. Gosh you’re strong”. I think it’s a pattern with me, that I’ve overcome hurdles and you get over it. It’s almost like a promotion. If you get over this to become stronger, the more you can take, the more you will endure, but the payoff I think at the end of the day will be bigger. I also think strength is a choice, a decision.
Kass, what you’ve shown us today is that being strong doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have fear, you don’t have doubt and uncertainty, but it’s the ability to just keep going, despite those existing fears and uncertainties. The last one for me, having gone through what you have, what do you now look forward to the most?
Joy! Joy! Just everything, my work has to give me joy, my friends have to give me joy, my family has to give me joy. If it’s not going to, I choose not to. Because you know what, life really is too short. It’s really going back to the basics on what’s important to you and prioritising that.
Truer words have never been spoken. Thank you for showing us the spirit of resilience and true grit. All the very best going forward.
Thank you very much.
This series on Mental Health is brought to you by Etiqa. If you want to know more about insurance and takaful products that Etiqa has to offer, including those that cover mental illness, please click here.