Resilience: the ultimate test

In 2015, one million refugees arrived in Germany escaping war and persecution. I am lucky to call several of these people my friends and never fail to be amazed by their ability to keep going, even with a smile, despite having lost everything. I have been inspired by their kindness and resilience. Now I am facing a personal challenge of my own, giving me the chance to put into practice all that I have learned.

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Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people. I have heard so many tragic, beautiful, funny stories bursting to be shared with the world to spread the love and stop the hating, as well as to give us all some inspiration on how to be more resilient. I was telling these stories to anyone who wanted to listen and even to those who did not! It does appear though, that the universe was listening and decided to test my own ability to be resilient. On a miserable Friday 13th (I kid you not) I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Well dear universe, thank you very much but I was doing fine creating my own challenges without adding this one to the list. And what‘s more, you are messing with the wrong person, in fact you are messing with the wrong team! Thanks to all my new friends (not forgetting old ones too), this little atheist has more people praying and rooting for her than you can shake a stick at. From Aleppo to London and Perth to Rio, Team Katie is made up of Muslims, Jews, Christians, gays, lesbians, black people, women and yes, even straight white men. I know I am loved and I am so thankful. I am grateful I live in a country which is not a war zone and I don’t have to fight for a permit to cross a border for treatment. I have access to possibly the best medical support in the world in a country where everyone has medical insurance. I am even lucky enough to have a cancer that is curable and treatable. I can do this! But saying all that, I still have a big journey ahead and with that in mind I am welcoming more members to the support team. So what‘s the story so far? Well, the dreaded Friday the 13th was already six weeks ago and in that time I have had more needles poked into my left nipple than I care to mention - some extracting bits of tumour for biopsy, others injecting nuclear medicine to flow into my lymph nodes so they could see them in the first operation. I write 'first' operation because it was followed by a second, and on Wednesday there will be a third. It is probably my own fault because I named my tumour Donald. I had high hopes that they would both be removed from 'office' on the same day but sadly in both cases they are still hanging around like bad smells. I will not give up hope though - third time lucky and all that. But the scariest thing I have had to face (what can be more scary than four injections of nuclear medicine in your nipple without anesthetic?!) is the prospect of my own death staring me suddenly in the face. Yikes. I've only just turned 41.

Of course when you get a cancer diagnosis the first thing you do is cry and then you start googling, and sometimes you do both at the same time. Breast cancer 10 year survival rates are like 83% - a huge relief, I think? But then you read about the problem of cancer spreading - usually first to the bones, liver or lungs, and see phrases like, "Bone and liver cancer are not curable but they are treatable", and, "perhaps only three years left to live". The moment I read that I developed an instant discomfort in my liver area and it has hung around ever since. No amount of reassurances from my doctor (who I seem to have fallen in love with) will get rid of the feeling that my liver is expanding and pushing into my ribs. This is a horrible feeling and has kept me awake on several occasions. A doctor told me about a patient of theirs who actually does have cancer in her liver and she couldn’t even feel a 6 cm tumour, only at 10 cms did it start to hurt. This patient is younger than me, I can’t imagine what she is going through right now. But still no positive blood test result or liver ultrasound would convince me, what if they missed something? What finally helped after six weeks of worry was when one of my best friends forced me to do a 'sweeping body relaxation meditation'. With this, she achieved the impossible - getting me to stay still and not look at facebook for more than 15 minutes - and guess what? The discomfort went away because I was holding all the stress in my stomach, especially on the right side! Even as I write these words, I have to just keep reminding myself to keep my stomach relaxed.

As well as liver, blood and lung tests I had to have a bone CT scan. This involved being injected with more nuclear medicine - this time in my arm thankfully - and being told to come back in 3 hours. Later, I lay in the tube trying not to move and definitely not repeating, "bone cancer is not curable" in my head (well maybe just a few times). I was doing well until the two doctors in the room watching the scan went from all jolly-jolly to speaking in hushed tones. So when they pulled me out of the coffin capsule I was not best pleased to hear: "Frau Griggs, the doctor wants a second scan on a different machine". That next scan lasted 20 minutes in which time I had time to choose a last holiday destination, decide the details of my funeral (UK or Germany?) and plan how to tell my family of my impending death. After the scan, we waited the longest 5 minutes I have ever waited and I told my husband we should be prepared. It turned out that the doctor had seen 'something' but the second scan ruled the 'something' out. Phew X one billion. So it is a roller-coaster ride requiring every single bit of chutzpah I can muster. So far, mostly, I am holding on tight. So take THAT, universe.

Photo: Thanks to Arnab Ghosal - who photographed me a few days after my second operation in the park where I teach refugee women to cycle.

Katie Griggs

Manager, Home for Refugees in Berlin

Working life began aged 14 in a local pub kitchen on Saturdays followed by a position as waitress at Pizza Hut one year later. Part-time work (WHSmiths, Somerfield, HSBC) continued throughout A'levels and University before landing a full-time position at Richard Branson's newly launched Virgin Finance company in Norwich. A few years later London was calling: a job in marketing at Sky TV awaited. After another few years there, it was time to move away from corporate life so the Amex-card, the car, the phone and laptop were exchanged for a bicycle and second-hand computer. Ten years of self-employed work followed - in London and Berlin with a portfolio of clients in organisations with a social, cultural and environmental focus including Greenpeace, an electric car company and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Then in 2015, 100,000 refugees arrived in Berlin requiring all-hands-on-deck. That included working in several huge emergency camps, hosting refugees at home and setting up Cycling Lessons for Ladies: providing cycling tuition for women refugees in the milder months and in the Winter preparing food together for homeless people at an emergency shelter. So far over 14,000 meals have been prepared as a team. In 2017, a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 41 meant there was even more to learn about life (and also time to launch a fundraising initiative "Cancer Care for Aleppo"). Returned to work at Friends of the Earth, as a project manager of environmental projects designed by refugees to finish that project. October 2018 started working for Berlin government managing a home for refugees.


Go to the profile of Maureen Younger
almost 5 years ago
Absolutely fantastic article Katie. It actually brought a tear to my eye! & For the record, you're one of the most resilient people I know . Bis bald! mx
Go to the profile of Nairobi Thompson
almost 5 years ago
Go to the profile of Nairobi Thompson
almost 5 years ago
Wonderfully written and a very brave share. Thank you gorgeous. Stay strong, stay beautiful and remember how loved you are ❤️And I can't believe you know Maureen Younger 😆 . Hello Maureen 🤗
Go to the profile of Suzy Walker
almost 5 years ago
Katie, I'm so sorry to hear the news but if there is anyone who is an expert on resilience, it's you! You are an inspiration. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. x