Never live in the what-if. This is one of the many lessons life has taught Radwa Moussa-Youssef, mother of two beautiful girls, a fascinating boy called Zein, and the author of “Zein: A Story of Darkness and Light”. We had a conversation with Radwa about her book, what drove her to write about such a personal journey, and how some of her darkest moments taught her the most important of lessons.
Tell us about your story.
The book started in 2013 as a diary. I loved writing all my life and journaling was therapeutic at the time. Around 2015 I started turning the notes into a book, so I started seeing it from a different angle. I’ve always wanted to write and publish a book. And always wanted to wait to publish until I had a greater cause, and there’s no greater cause than this.
How did the experience affect your perspective on life and its meaning?
It changed dramatically. I don’t think of anything or look at anything the same way. I don’t get affected by any small problem anymore. It’s built thick skin for everyone in the family, not just myself.
How did your husband support you along the journey and with the book?
I can write a whole book about just my husband. He supported me the whole way. He took care of the kids and helped with time management just so I could have time to write. When I’d feel down or doubtful he’d definitely be the one to lift me up.
Tell us about your charitable organization and how it helps support families of children with cancer.
It’s a non-profit organization based in Southern California called Create A Smile. I started it in 2013 alongside my sister-in-law. It started small, but thankfully it’s now serving so many kids in Southern California.
How did the experience change the conversation with your children and the awareness you want them to have?
Parenting became very difficult all of a sudden. You have two young kids at the ages of 5.5 and 4.5 who are growing in very difficult circumstances. Not only did we want to make sure their mental health was sound, that they felt heard and loved, but we also wanted them to grow. My husband always says change everything negative into a positive and it’s become our motto as a family – even Zein used it in his speech at the World Youth Forum.
How different is the emotional support every member of the family needs in circumstances like yours?
Very different. When a family member gets diagnosed with cancer, everyone in the family is affected. The caregivers take the biggest hit because you automatically go into survival mode because the kids come first. The siblings always feel left behind and that was a point we always spoke to Malak about. She is equally important and sometimes we’ll have to focus on Zein more, but that doesn’t mean she’s loved any less. We would also tell Zein that it’s not always about him and that there are others in the world.
A year later, are there plans for writing other books?
Yes! I’m working really hard on finding someone who would publish my English copy of the book.
With almost a decade battling cancer, how do you as a mother empower your child?
It doesn’t define who we are and I refuse to be called a cancer mom. I’m very honored to be one, but there’s more to me. I want them to come out of this journey empowered by it, turning their trials and tribulations into life lessons and growth.
Some mothers tell their boys that men don’t cry, do you do that or not?
No, I don’t. Telling your boys not to cry is raising a generation of messed up men, in my opinion. In fact, when Zein gets overwhelmed, I take him into a room and tell him to let it out.
Soothing a child fighting a battle isn’t a walk in the park, so how do you keep your enemy close? How do you embrace the monsters under the bed?
With an enemy as strong as cancer, we are always in defense mode and there’s always a fear of relapse, especially with Zein’s cancer because it’s aggressive. I think we’ve built thick skin in a way that makes us always ready for whatever life might throw at us. But we embrace the saying that goes “never live in the what if.” We don’t live in the what-if. We acknowledge our fears and look them in the eyes, but we don’t live in fear. There’s no shame in being scared, but don’t let fear control you.