I stumbled upon Yuri Chung’s Notes To A Friend by chance this past January in Mid-City while on my way to an ENDPAIN meeting with Alison and Robyn. Sitting on the counter at Healing Coffee—an-aptly-named-yet-coincidentally-found coffee shop for three people that spend all day reading stories about pain and healing—Alison spotted the small, inconspicuous white zine and handed it to me while we waited in line. As I read Yuri’s words, the haste and hurry of our schedules paused as I stood paralyzed in awe at the poignancy and honesty of Yuri’s story.
“I think we all need to read this,” I remember saying, passing it back to Alison. The three of us took turns leafing through the pages, almost forgetting our original mission of getting coffee as we read passages out loud:
Cancer at 25 and again at 30 is anything but normal. This is not the kind of extraordinary I dreamt about in my youth. But if this is my extraordinary in this lifetime, then I have to fly with it.
Notes To A Friend is a collection of Yuri’s reflections on living with metastasized stage 4 breast cancer as an artist and young person. Yuri, now 32, aims to turn the chapbook into a multimedia experience exhibit in New York, hoping her story will help destigmatize cancer and encourage others to share their experiences. In honor of her Kickstarter goal, we’re publishing selections of Notes To A Friend along with the Kickstarter video and an interview with Yuri in the hopes that it will help raise the necessary funds for her project.
Fraser Hammersly (FH): What role did writing play in your life before Notes To A Friend?
Yuri Angela Chung (Yuri): In high school, when I had the freedom to choose my electives, I chose poetry and creative writing. That’s when I first realized, hey, I can write, too. Then in college during art school, I took electives like film history and children’s literature. And that’s when I knew that my fascination was around narratives and the craft of storytelling. All these subjects would be continuing curiosities of mine—I still have dreams of publishing a children’s book and writing a screenplay one day. Before Notes To A Friend, the only evidence of my writing could be found in my travel journals from my youth. I don’t write every day; in fact, I don’t often write at all. But I think that’s okay. Just write what you know.
FH: In your intro to “Notes,” you write that sharing your first set of reflections was how you dealt with your return cancer diagnosis. At ENDPAIN, we’re always discussing the role that sharing our stories plays in the healing process. Why was it important for you to share those first reflections publically, and how did it make you feel? Did anything unexpected happen?
AND MY GUT FEELING WAS RIGHT: PEOPLE WANTED TO KNOW. THE THINGS I WROTE ABOUT AREN’T IN A PASSAGE UNDER “BREAST CANCER” IN WIKIPEDIA OR WEBMD—THESE WERE MY MOST INTIMATE THOUGHTS ON MY OWN EXPERIENCE.
Yuri: When I chose to share my writings, it was my immediate response to the recurrence. This time around, I was older, and I had enough confidence to be candid, and it just felt right that I share my thoughts with an audience. I thought it was important that my friends knew what had happened, what I had gone through, what I was feeling, what was happening now and what metastatic cancer really means. And my gut feeling was right: people wanted to know. The things I wrote about aren’t in a passage under “breast cancer” in Wikipedia or WebMD—these were my most intimate thoughts on my own experience. The most surprising part was that even though Notes To A Friend was a personal reflection of one person and one story, it resonated with so many others—I was getting messages from people from all walks of life. It is the most rewarding feeling when a person who has been affected by this disease reaches out to me and thanks me for my words. That makes me feel like a million bucks.
FH: You write that creativity and art have always been your natural response to difficult times. What is it about art and creativity that you find to be a useful coping outlet?
Yuri: I really believe that pain is fuel to one’s creativity. I recently connected with someone who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer earlier this year. She is another creative soul, and one of the first things she said to me was that her urge to create had “shriveled up at the moment.” And I assured her that her creativity would come back in full force and at its best. How can your art be the same when your life is so different? Art is the rawest form of expression—you can’t lie with art. So I think truth is what heals us; truth is what helps us survive.
HOW CAN YOUR ART BE THE SAME WHEN YOUR LIFE IS SO DIFFERENT? ART IS THE RAWEST FORM OF EXPRESSION—YOU CAN’T LIE WITH ART. SO I THINK TRUTH IS WHAT HEALS US; TRUTH IS WHAT HELPS US SURVIVE.
FH: You say that you aren’t a “writer by trade” but took to writing to tell your story. Did you find that the act of writing itself was an important part of processing your experience? Have you explored your story through any other mediums?
Yuri: Yes, I definitely think that writing was an important part in processing my experience. If I hadn’t written it down, they would’ve disappeared along with my memories.
FH: Are there any specific texts or stories that brought you comfort throughout your experience with cancer?
Yuri: More than texts, I think movies and TV shows comfort me most. But that’s just me—I love movies. And I love Gilmore Girls. You don’t have a worry in the world when you’re watching Gilmore Girls!
FH: As you mention, cancer is still a “taboo” subject in our culture even though most people are affected by it in one way or another. What do you think is the cultural basis behind the taboo, and what can we do to eliminate it?
Yuri: I think any disease is taboo to talk about in any culture. There’s a stigma attached to cancer: cancer equals death. And who wants to talk about death? Nobody. Although there are a lot of positive campaigns around cancer, there’s still a negative perception around the word “cancer”—it instills fear in people. And I think that’s a direct outcome of the lack of open discussion. We should all be more open to talking about all illnesses, not just cancer.
EVEN THOUGH I AM KOREAN MYSELF, IT’S A VERY SHAMEFUL AND EMBARRASSING FACT THAT IN KOREA, NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT YOU WEAR AND WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE. SO IMAGINE BEING A YOUNG GIRL WITH STAGE 4 BREAST CANCER AND A MASTECTOMY—YOU PROBABLY WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO SHOW YOUR FACE. IT’S FOR THESE REASONS THAT I’D LOVE TO TAKE NOTES TO A FRIEND TO MY HOMELAND SOMEDAY.
FH: You printed “Notes” in Korean as well as English. Are the taboos surrounding cancer in Korean culture different from the ones that exist in America?
Yuri: If you are Korean, you know how important a role your outer appearance plays in the Korean culture. Even though I am Korean myself, it’s a very shameful and embarrassing fact that in Korea, nothing is more important than what you wear and what you look like. So imagine being a young girl with stage 4 breast cancer and a mastectomy—you probably wouldn’t be able to show your face. It’s for these reasons that I’d love to take Notes To A Friend to my homeland someday.
FH: We found “Notes” by chance at a coffee shop in Mid-City and immediately felt inclined to reach out, which I assume wasn’t the first time that happened to you. What has been the most interesting story or thing to come out of your zine being stumbled upon? Why did you decide to leave it in coffee shops around LA?
Yuri: I’ve had so many people come up to me in the past few years. One time I was working on my laptop in a cafe (where I often left my zines) and an elderly man came up to me. He quietly introduced himself and told me that he picked up my booklet months ago while visiting LA from New York and that he keeps it in his bookshelf. He said, “You know, I read it every morning—it helps me start my day.” The whole exchange was very sweet and made me incredibly grateful and incredibly happy.
FH: What are you looking forward to most about the multimedia experience? What do you hope the immersive multimedia experience will accomplish that “Notes” did not?
Yuri: I can’t wait for more people to experience Notes To A Friend. I think the most exciting part for me, is just seeing all the work my partners and I have put into this project finally come together in real life. I’m excited to see the notes light up on the cue of Embeth’s voice in one space, and I’m excited to see how powerful the combination of all the pieces together will be. This installation will be adapting your sense of sight and sound, which takes Notes to a different level of experience. I’m just super excited all around!
FH: What has been the most surprising thing to come from your experience with cancer?
Yuri: That I can actually not be hungry. Being a food lover all my life, I didn’t think that was possible! It’s possible, and it sucks. Eating a delicious meal with the people you love is one of the most joyous things in the world—not being able to eat because your body won’t let you, is probably one of the worst things about cancer.
IT’S BECAUSE WE FEEL PAIN THAT WE CAN ALSO FEEL JOY, EMPATHY AND EVERYTHING ELSE IN BETWEEN. IT’S WHAT MAKES US HUMAN.
FH: Do you have any self-care rituals? Can you share about them?
Yuri: I’m personally not into meditation or alternative healing methods, but one ritual that I’ve been doing forever is getting my nails done after chemo. It’s one way that I take care of myself, and it also makes me feel better. My grandmother is well into her nineties, and she still curls her hair and puts on red lipstick—25 or 95, she’s still a woman. Bald and missing a breast, but I’m still a woman.
FH: Do you think that pain has a purpose? If so, what do you think it is?
Yuri: I think pain allows us to grow and forces us to feel things we never knew we could feel. We naturally fear even the idea of pain—but we shouldn’t be afraid. It’s because we feel pain that we can also feel joy, empathy and everything else in-between. It’s what makes us human.