Sabrina Wang of The Budding Optimist: “Sense of Agency”

I didn’t realize how small things like getting up at the same time every day, making the bed, going out for walks, and taking a shower at the same time every day can have such powerful effects on our wellbeing until I started doing those things consistently. Our body and mind craves structure and predictability […]

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I didn’t realize how small things like getting up at the same time every day, making the bed, going out for walks, and taking a shower at the same time every day can have such powerful effects on our wellbeing until I started doing those things consistently. Our body and mind craves structure and predictability so even though it is tempting to let go of routine when you’re suffering a loss or experiencing a life change, it’s important to create a routine and stick to it.

The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives. How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Wang.

Sabrina is a two-time blood cancer survivor who lives with a rare and serious lung condition as a result of her treatments. She’s also a proud cat mama, a seasoned human resources professional, and a health and personal growth enthusiast who strives to live life with passion and hope. In 2018, Sabrina started The Budding Optimist ( blog where she shares stories and insights on how to live a happy and healthy life filled with gratitude, optimism, and resilience.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in the late 80’s in China. My parents had a rocky relationship and my father left when I was about 5 years old.

It had a tremendous effect on me.

I remember always feeling like I was missing something and different from everyone else. My mother became my rock. I’ve always looked up to her for how resilient she was after the divorce (this was the 90’s in China when divorce and single motherhood was still very much the minority and frowned upon). Although I was shy and withdrawn, I was a curious, contemplative child who loved to read and write.

My parents got back together when I was about 10 and we immigrated to Canada as a family. It was a very lonely and surreal experience for all of us. My parents started having marital problems soon after. My dad started hitting my mom. It became more and more frequent, until the violence or the fear of it took over our lives. When I was 16, my father left again — except this time, I was glad that he did.

A few years later in 2007, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. I had just turned 19.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”

― Rabindranath Tagore

It hasn’t been easy since the time when I was first diagnosed with Leukemia. I had a relapse in 2009 and had to have a bone-marrow transplant to save my life. Then when I thought I was completely out of the woods, in 2017, I was told by my doctors, after a routine lung function test, that I have a condition called Bronchiolitis Obliterans. This a rare lung condition that affects a small percentage of bone-marrow transplant recipients. I was told I have moderate to severe restrictions in my lungs and that my lung function is only 60% of a typical person my age.

Every time I’m confronted with a health crisis, I free fall into shock, self-pity, and despair. I start to worry about what’s going to happen and the anxiety just consumes me. But time and time again, this quote reminds me that if I focus only on the negatives, if I allow myself to wallow in despair, then I miss out on all the good things and good people I still have in my life.

Endlessly stewing in these negative emotions won’t help solve any of my problems, instead it’ll just rob me of the time and energy I could have used to enjoy my life. Having lived through several difficult diagnoses already, I’ve learned that no matter how tough the situation appears at first, there is a silver lining — if I choose to see it.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Gratitude and the ability to appreciate the small things in life.

Every time I see something beautiful in nature, or I taste good food, or I enjoy a laughter with my family and friends, I feel grateful for being alive to this day and being able to have this moment. I used to feel an aching sense of loss and regret for having had blood cancer. I used to feel that cancer “robbed” me o many things in life — from my fertility to my lung function — and I always wondered if I could have done more, or if I could have done better, to dodge the cancer bullet.

But through cultivating gratitude and appreciating the small things in life, I’ve learned to let go of that self-pity and regret. Gratitude has freed me from a lot of negative emotions and stress, and given me the ability to move forward in life with hope and joy.

2. Sense of Agency

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I felt an awful sense of helplessness. I believed I was at the whims of this disease and I had little control over how I felt both physically and mentally.

This helpless attitude didn’t help things at all.

I was lazy and despondent — I slept pretty much all day and expected everyone else to take care of me. As a result, I lost a lot of muscle strength in a short span of time — to the point where I couldn’t even walk for more than a few minutes. And I couldn’t sleep — I felt anxious all the time, and my mood became darker and darker.

Then one day, I broke down in front of a nurse and told her I was paralyzed by thoughts of worry and sadness, and she comforted me. She told me I should let the doctors worry about my treatment and disease, and only focus on the things I could control. She also told me that she often sees two types of patients in her care — the fighters and those who don’t put up a fight — and the fighters almost always do better.

Her words lit a fire in me.

I thought long and hard about what type of cancer patient I wanted to be, and I decided I wanted to be a fighter. I didn’t want to sit still and stew in fear and sadness anymore. I started to ask myself the question: “What are things that are within my control?”

I realized there were lots of things that were still within my control — like what time I got up each morning, how I treated those around me, what I wore each day, and how I spent the time I had to myself. I took every opportunity to discover things that I could control in my life, and focused on them instead of my negative emotions.

This mindset change completely changed my life.

This sense of agency is what helps me cope with my lung condition so well to this day. Even though my lung function looks awful on paper, I’m still able to live an active life and do a lot of things that amaze my doctors, and I believe it’s all because of the things I do in my daily life — such as breathing techniques, cardio and core strengthening exercises, and a healthy, balanced diet — to help keep my lungs in good shape. Instead of worrying about what’s going to happen to me, I focus all my energy on “what can I do to give myself the best shot at health and happiness?”

3. Growth mindset

I’m a big fan of renowned Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. I believe talents, skills, and even attitude can be developed through practice and patience. This philosophy of the growth mindset is the theme behind my blog “The Budding Optimist”. I am an optimist in training and I’m on my way to becoming healthier, more resilient, and more accepting of myself — and I believe we can all do the same with a growth mindset.

I wasn’t born as someone who was naturally optimistic and grateful, in fact, I was quite pessimistic and prone to anxiety. At the start of my cancer journey, I didn’t think I could take control of my health and happiness, and my thoughts would often be filled with the words “I can’t”. But through awareness and practice, I’ve learned to change my mindset to “I can’t do this yet, but I’m going to learn, practice, and get better at it.”

By adopting this approach, I’ve become healthier, more grateful, and more optimistic in my life. This mindset has also helped me gain more self-acceptance and grow professionally — I’ve learned to grow from my failures instead of running from them — and this mindset has allowed me to blossom into a competent HR professional and a blogger.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?

I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia at age 19. I was briefly in remission after having received chemotherapy but the cancer relapsed in 2009 and I received a bone-marrow transplant via an unrelated donor. The bone-marrow transplant resulted in infertility and a few years later, I was also diagnosed with a rare lung condition called Bronchiolitis Obliterans, which is a disease that causes obstructions in the lungs and restricts breathing.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

The scariest part of the cancer diagnosis was the uncertainty. The fear of not knowing whether you’re going to live or die, or how much time you have, was the scariest.

For the first few years after my diagnosis, I lived in almost constant fear that I was not going to make it.

How did you react in the short term?

Initially, I responded to my situation with helplessness. I felt sorry for myself and couldn’t do anything. I let myself wallow in sadness and shock for a while and this had a really negative effect on me both physically and mentally. My health and mental health declined to the point where I couldn’t sleep without aid, I couldn’t sit still, and I couldn’t walk more than a few minutes at a time because I was so weak. I was not in a good place.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

I focused on things I could control. I developed a routine for myself that I did my best to stick to — like waking up at the same time every day, going out for walks, and taking a shower at the same time every day. Doing things that made me feel productive and having a daily routine that I could stick to stopped me from spiraling deeper and deeper into negativity and chaos. After a while, I started to feel like I was getting myself and my life back on track and things began to look up.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?

I was able to “let go” of the negative emotions eventually by doing the following:

  • Recognize and accept my negative emotions but not dwelling on them. I’ve realized that it was normal for me to grieve, to feel anger, and to worry. But instead of clinging onto these emotions, I’ve learned to be aware of them when they come up, allow myself to experience them without guilt or shame, and then let them go.
  • Being patient and tolerant towards myself. I would often remind myself that I did and I’m doing the best I can.
  • Being present in the moment each day instead of regretting the past or worrying about the future. I devote my energy towards practicing gratitude instead of complaining, and focusing on the things I could control.

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

I started to actively seek out more positive experiences and people. I travelled. I joined an amateur dodgeball team. I started writing my blog. And I became a cat mama. When you have more positivity in your life, you naturally have less energy to focus on the negatives.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I have two people that I’m grateful towards for helping me through this journey. My mother and my husband Tony. My mother has always been my rock and she showed everyone just how much healing a mother’s unconditional love can do for a child. I wouldn’t be alive today without her incredible strength, comfort and support.

Tony and I were only dating for 8 months or so when the first cancer diagnosis struck. We were both 19 at the time. It could have been so easy for him to leave my side but he never did. He was the one who held my hand every time I had to have a bone marrow biopsy. He fed me spoon after spoon when I was too weak to eat. When I started to feel hopeless after being in treatment for too long, he did his best to cheer me up and told me every day to hold on for just a little longer.

I’m forever grateful for having had (and still have) these two amazing people in my life during that difficult time.

Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?

Yes, with a gratitude practice. I wasn’t always a grateful person, but I started making a point to notice the good things that happened in my day — no matter how small they were, and taking the time — even if it’s just for a few seconds — to think about how lucky I am to have experienced these good things. Eventually, I learned to look at my cancer diagnosis — and everything that came with it — from a more positive perspective. My experiences have made me realize how resilient, grateful, and happy I can be as a person, without any external things. I’m more confident and at peace with myself because of what I went through. And I now have the reassuring knowledge that no matter what I face in the future, I have the strength to overcome it, and that gives me a lot of comfort.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?

I’ve learned that I am in control of how I feel and how I react to a situation. Growing up in an unhappy home and being diagnosed with a serious illness at 19 made me think that I was a victim of “bad luck” in life and I harboured a lot of resentment because of it. I used to often ask myself the question: “Why me?”

Then I realized happiness was a choice. I can’t choose everything that happens in life but I have the choice to decide how I feel about a situation and how I respond to it. I can choose to respond with self-pity, anger, and inaction, or I can react with gratitude, hope, and a plan on how to move forward.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. A routine

It’s easy to let your day fall into chaos or slip into an unproductive cycle of “doing nothing” when your life changes. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, all my normal routines went out the window — I slept for most of the day and did practically nothing when I was awake. This had a severe impact on my health and mental health. I didn’t realize how small things like getting up at the same time every day, making the bed, going out for walks, and taking a shower at the same time every day can have such powerful effects on our wellbeing until I started doing those things consistently. Our body and mind craves structure and predictability so even though it is tempting to let go of routine when you’re suffering a loss or experiencing a life change, it’s important to create a routine and stick to it.

2. The belief that you have the power to change how you feel

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t think I could change how I felt. I thought I would always feel sick, tired, sad and anxious — and that was exactly how I felt for a long time. But when I started to believe that I had the power to change how I felt physically and mentally — through things like exercise, better diet, and focusing on things I could control — I felt better. When you believe youhave the power to change how you feel — whether it’s your energy level or your attitude towards about a situation — magic happens.

3. A gratitude practice

At the start of my cancer journey, I wasn’t someone who could always see the silver lining in a bad situation — I was the opposite. I complained a lot, I worried incessantly, and I focused my attention on the negatives.

What first opened my eyes to gratitude was an “ah-ha” moment I had at this event called “Look Good, Feel Better” — a charitable event at designed to help young women suffering from cancer feel better about their body image. The organizers would teach participants on how to put on make-up and wigs, and offer tips on skincare, etc. I remember I had been feeling terrible about myself for a while at that point, because I had just lost all of my long, black hair. I couldn’t bring myself to look at myself in the mirror and I just felt I had lost everything in life.

At this event, I looked at my face in close detail for the first time in a long time. As I was putting on the mascara the organizers had given out, there was a moment when I almost jumped out of my chair with surprise. I saw that I still had my eyelashes — and they were stunning. I realized that I had spent all of my energy mourning what I had “lost”, and as a result, I became blind to this beautiful thing I still had.

That moment flipped a switch in me. I started to make deliberate effort to notice the good things and good people around me every day, until gratitude came more naturally to me. When you experience a major change in life or a loss, it’s hard to find anything to feel good about. But if you keep your eyes open and continue to look for the good things you still have in life, you’ll see that they do exist. And they will lift you up.

4. Positive people that you can count on

When you’re going through a hard time, it’s important to surround yourself with positive people that you can count on to be your source of strength and positivity. I’m grateful to have been surrounded by my mother and Tony, my boyfriend at the time (now husband) — two of the most resilient, grateful, and optimistic people I know — since the start of my cancer journey. Their positivity kept me afloat in some of the darkest times in my life and knowing that they’ll always have my back was (and still is) a great source of strength and comfort. When you’re in the midst of a life change or loss, it’s important to identify who are the positive people in your life — those who bring genuine smiles to your face and make you feel good inside — and usually, these are people you can also rely on. Surround yourself with these people, and their positivity will warm you up like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy, cold day.

5. A productive outlet

When you’re going through a hard time, your mind is anything but quiet. If you don’t find a productive outlet for your energy, it will go into ruminating over the future or brewing over negative emotions. When I first started in my cancer journey, I was plagued by constant rumination and anxiety. My mind would automatically go to the worst-case scenario and stay there, day after day. It was an excruciating experience. But I found that through engaging in productive activities — such as exercising, writing, drawing, learning a language, or practicing the piano — I was able to keep the rumination and negative thoughts at bay.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to inspire a movement towards building self-agency. When you believe you have the power to change how you feel, your whole life changes. I believe self-agency can help a lot of people achieve a healthier and happier life, and build stronger, more fulfilling relationships.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

If I really have to just pick one person in the entire world, I would love to meet Jackson Galaxy, who is a beloved Cat Behaviourist and host of the show “My Cat From Hell”. He seems like a really cool, down-to-earth, and fascinating person. And best of all, cats just make me so happy and I would love to learn more about them from Jackson.

My brain tells me I should pick Bill Gates or Elon Musk and discuss the future of the world, but my heart just wants to talk about cats for an hour or two. I have to honor what makes me truly happy. ☺

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My blog The Budding Optimist:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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