Written by Reena Racki, Alembika Guest Author and a breast and lung cancer survivor who found recovery and joyful healing linked to family, friends, flowers and fun in nature. 


My journey as a cat with 9 lives began when I was 21 and was thrown out of a car in a remote part of Swaziland. 

I landed on my head and was in a coma. Fortunately, a passing traveler transported me to an American Mission Hospital where I had the first of a few surgeries. After 6 months of memory loss I recovered sufficiently to finish up architecture school with distinctions. Head injuries left me with chronic migraine. Coming out of the fog of brain injury, with the bright South African sun streaming through the window welcoming the morning, I began my parallel journey of not just learning how to survive, but learning how to make each day count. 


Moving from South Africa to the USA, I was in my late 20’s filled with the excitement of being a young architect. I had just started my new job when I felt that dreaded lump in my breast. 

It was fortunately a benign breast lump. Similar lumps 2, 3, and 4 – hyperplasia – were removed over the next 15 years. Lump 5 was more serious – atypical ductal hyperplasia – and I needed an oncologist. 

He tried a prophylactic drug, but side effects led to hospitalization. Later, a young brilliant Harvard grad breast surgeon looked at my record of multiple premalignant breast lumps and insisted I have a breast MRI. This test saved my life. The result was a diagnosis of invasive lobular carcinoma, needing surgery. The decisions – double mastectomy or breast saving lumpectomy with radiation and estrogen suppressant drugs for five years. 

It was to be my birthday the day after the breast cancer diagnosis. Once again my two journeys clashed: live to survive or survive to celebrate life. I chose the lumpectomy and refused the radiation since scatter radiation could have damaged my healthy heart. The day after the diagnosis was to be my birthday, so I spontaneously threw a big party. 

I had a wonderfully empathetic surgeon with “golden hands”.I went into a special MRI machine and the surgeon inserted 3 wires into the breast which intersected precisely at the tumor. After this the incisional surgery was then over fairly quickly; long-acting anesthetics injected into the wounds; greatly diminished the pain.

Meanwhile, the anti-breast cancer drugs were causing extreme, debilitating quality-of-life side effects.  Once again a tough journey decision point. I discontinued the drugs and began daily constitutional walking by the ocean, drinking in its sounds, crisp smells; the sculpted rocks it shaped, the flora that endured its moods, and the spectacular sunsets. And I continued energetically commuting between my DC architecture and La Jolla offices. 

LIFE 3. 

We went on Safari to remote gorgeous Namibia. The car rental at the airport gave us a brand new Mercedes though we had rented a Subaru. We visited stunning Etosha Park and The Smithsonian Cheetah Conservation Center.

As we were driving on the long, straight desert road an oncoming driver in a truck fell asleep at his wheel and hit us head-on. The incredibly strong, steel frame of the rented Mercedes saved us.

A crowd of Africans gathered around us staring until a man in a pickup truck carried us to the nearest village hospital. The only injury was a huge egg on my forehead. The next day the rental car company contacted us to help us return to the States. Another choice – – return to safety or continue the adventure.  A no-brainer, and shortly thereafter they showed up with a brand new Mercedes for us. 

LIFE 4. 

I returned to La Jolla from working in DC. I arrived exhausted and coughing. My excellent internist immediately diagnosed pneumonia and ordered chest X Rays. They showed the pneumonia; and a shadow which needed rechecking 

After 3 months of bed rest, I procrastinated about the follow up XRay. My proactive internist insisted. I went. She called immediately thereafter to say it was definitely lung cancer – -a new one (not metastatic breast cancer).  This diagnosis was far more scary than breast cancer. The pneumonia turned out to have been a gift – revealing the lung cancer

I was diagnosed with non-small-cell-invasive-lung-carcinoma, but still at an operable stage. The cardiovascular operating room looked like a space-ship with multiple large computer monitors; and large, extremely bright surgical lights. 

Recovery from this surgery was not easy; 7 nights in the hospital; excruciatingly painful trying to breathe ..10 on a scale of 1- 10. I determinedly got out of bed walking around the postop floor, constantly cheered on by attentive, caring nurses. It was shocking to see a plumbing pipe being pulled out of my chest. Shocking also, were the 6-8 inches long ugly incisions. I was thrilled to go home and those incisions gradually shrunk to just 2 inch wide scars. 


I have retired from my architecture practice, but I continue my extensive walks armed with my camera. I try to capture the beauty around us, whether the inside of a freshly flowering passion fruit blossom, or the sweeping infinity of the ocean as it meets the ever out of reach horizon at sunset.

When I read the long list of medical professionals who have enabled my survival, I give thanks and am extraordinarily grateful especially to my immediate family and good friends. I truly wish this kind of care was accessible to all patients in the US. 

As I think back, however, I am reminded that I am definitely not defined by being a head trauma and being a cancer survivor. My life has been a wonderful journey of becoming an architect (training at University of Cape Town and then MIT) and getting work experience in offices in Cape Town, Paris, Cambridge and Los Angeles. 

Thereafter, I was able to start and run my own architectural firm in Washington, DC for about 30 years. I also, luckily have one amazingly supportive husband, one incredible daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter. And we are practically neighbors. They’re the biggest blessing and joy in my life now. 

I paint instead of designing buildings- and am trying to get to a very large scale of canvas.. room size is my goal.. after all, I still want to make bold, colorful and light-filled spaces.

My beloved dynamic mother, Clara – a holocaust survivor, inspired my entire life journey.

Read more about Reena Racki in her #AlembikaWomen spotlight.

Connect with Reena and others in our private Alembika Women Facebook Group.


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