Life's little miracles

By Alywin chew in Shanghai | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-07-14 12:50
Life's little miracles

The founder of More Than Aware, an organization that encourages women to be proactive in the prevention of breast cancer, tells of her inspiring journey in China

Suzanne Calton's nine years in China have been incredibly eventful, not simply because she has made roots in Shanghai, a city that she and her family have grown to love, but because it is the place where she learned that miracles do happen in life.

After her mother lost the fight to breast cancer in 2011, Calton fell into depression and cried herself to bed almost every night. But three weeks later, the American woke up in her Shanghai home realizing that the pain had suddenly subsided.

Strangely enough, she even felt happiness. And it was all due to a dream she had the night before that showed her a glimpse of the future.

"I dreamed that I was walking into a hotel ballroom and there were many people around. There were big white tables and people speaking at the event. I also remembered a lot of details like the patterns in the carpet. It was a very vivid dream," said the 38-year-old.

"I knew the people in the dream were gathering for breast cancer. But they weren't depressed - they were actually joyful. The thought that came to mind was they were meeting because they wanted to do something about the disease instead of just being aware about it."

Inspired by the dream, and realizing that it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Calton started contacting her friends in Shanghai as part of efforts to put together a team to champion the proactive prevention of the disease. Several days later on Oct 26, when she was at the Kerry Hotel in Pudong New Area to do a site recce for her movement's promotional event, Calton received a surreal affirmation of her efforts.

The carpet in the hotel was exactly the same as the one from her dreams.

"I had never been to Kerry Hotel before. They had only been open for two months. It was just crazy. I started calling my friends and telling them about this strange experience and they were all very supportive. Everything moved really fast from that moment on and soon we had started More Than Aware," recalled Calton.

Born in California, Calton first moved to Shanghai in 2008 when her husband was contracted to work for an auto financing company in the city. While she used to be busy with running a small online business selling children's accessories, she today spends much of her time coordinating initiatives by non-profit organization More Than Aware (MTA).

Calton reiterated that MTA is not a typical breast cancer awareness organization but one that encourages women to be proactive in the prevention and recovery of the disease.

In order to differentiate themselves, MTA's official logo is similar to the pink ribbon - it is the international symbol of breast cancer awareness - but its version features one end that is in green. She explained that green symbolizes cancer prevention through a healthy lifestyle.

There are currently close to 100 volunteers at MTA, including 14 community leaders who together hail from 13 countries. The organization has been holding its annual fun run event at Shanghai's Century Park every spring since 2013, bringing together thousands of supporters as well as "thrivers", or breast cancer survivors.

"At MTA we don't call people survivors because that's a passive term. A survivor might mean you only have to breathe to live. But a thriver is someone who is proactive and empowered in their wellness. These are people in recovery from breast cancer who are sometimes living life even more fully than those who don't have breast cancer," she explained.

But Calton's connection with China extends beyond breast cancer "thrivers" and local support volunteers - three of her daughters were adopted from orphanages in the country. She also has two biological sons named Hunter and Tanner.

"Some people adopt children because it's noble or charitable but I don't think my family is that noble," she laughed.

"My husband and I love Chinese culture so much that we had planned to adopt even before coming to China. I don't see a difference between our adopted daughters and my biological sons."

The first two girls the couple adopted were Annaleigh and Sharly, who came from the same orphanage in Henan province. Their youngest daughter Sunny was the other miracle Calton experienced in China.

Sunny suffers from spina bifida, a condition where the spinal column doesn't form properly. She also has a leg deformity and a locked knee.

"In 2013, we went to a baby home in Shanghai where orphan babies underwent surgery. We came across this two-and-a-half-year-old girl who had never talked and walked her whole life. The director of the healing home said she was from an orphanage that doesn't allow adoption. She said there was almost no hope for her," recalled Calton.

But what happened shortly after convinced the couple to follow their heart.

Unlike most children in orphanages who are afraid of men because staff are usually women, Sunny started smiling and giggling when Calton's husband entered the room. The girl even threw her toy at the man, who in turn started playing with her.

"After we went home, my husband and I realized that though we chose our two daughters, this girl actually chose us. A couple of weeks later, I took her back to Shanghai. Within three months she was walking and talking. It was just a magical experience," she said.

Calton's enthusiasm for helping others thrive in life has inherently rubbed off on her children. She said that though Sunny recently had her bad leg amputated, she isn't afraid to show people her disability.

"My kids have different interests and our home is typically messy and loud. Hunter is into organizing neighborhood road hockey, Tanner loves martial arts, Annaleigh loves netball, Sharly is a great singer, and Sunny recently started a blanket-making project for other kids recovering from surgery," she said.

Looking back at her time in China, Calton said that the experience has been a most fulfilling one.

"China has changed us. Because many of us are here temporarily, we learn to build deep and meaningful relationships quicker. Also, we have learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, to be risk-takers and to stretch our limits," she said.

"In these nine years in China we have seen miracles happen as cultures come together in love and humanity. Living here has made my family open-minded and taught us to dream big."

Cao Chen contributed to this story.


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