Yesterday I had lunch with Alexis, the founder of Stay Strong and Mahj On, and her mother, Blair, who happens to be her inspiration. The three of us hit it off immediately and the conversation never stopped for a moment. After meeting Blair I definitely now understand why Alexis has been so inspired by her. What a great lady! While we were chatting away Alexis received a message that an article she had written had just been published on Kveller.com. It’s a beautiful article – sincere, poignant, and articulate…and, of course, about Mah Jongg. I thought you might like to read it…
The Surprising Thing That Brought My Mom and I Closer When She Had Breast Cancer By Alexis Miller
What was supposed to be an incredible summer in Israel took a turn for the worst when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was going into my senior year of college, and was abroad in Israel when I received the news. Not knowing what to do, I confided in family and friends to get me through this tumultuous time.
Fast forward to being back in the United States. I was at a coffee shop with Jordyn and Moriah, my friends I had met the previous summer through an internship program. I told them about my mom’s diagnosis and solicited their empathy, as they both are daughters of breast cancer survivors themselves. While my other friends did not understand the impact of changing my mom’s drains, watching her go through chemotherapy, and taking her to and from doctor appointments, Jordyn and Moriah just got it. They were there to support me as I took three weeks off of my senior year to care for my mom.
Taking care of my mom was not only rewarding, but brought the two of us closer together, which I did not think was possible. There is now no conversation that is off-limits, and I can honestly say she is my best friend. But beyond talking and spending more time with her, there was another surprising way my mom and I were able to connect during the time I was home: through the game of Mah Jongg.
My mom has been playing Mah Jongg for years, as my grandma and great-grandma played as well. She uses their Mah Jongg sets, which makes the game extra special. Within the past few years, my mom has become an avid Mah Jongg player. Every week, she gathers with her friends, always over a meal, and they play for a few hours.
While I was in high school and home for college breaks, I would always look forward to those few hours with my mom, her friends, and hearing the clacking of their Mah Jongg tiles. It was a few years ago that they taught me to play the game one winter afternoon. Every time I am home now, we set up a game with her friends so that I am able to play. I am their token millennial, and they take pride in having taught me the game.
Mah Jongg bridges the gap between generations, and includes everyone. I feel as though this game is in my blood, since it has been played for many generations in my family. It connects me with my relatives who are no longer living, and nurtures my relationship with my female role models. Learning how to play was just a given for me, something that was necessary to learn as a Jewish woman. It is now a newfound hobby for me, and I am teaching my friends, all in our early 20s, how to play.
It was during the time I took care of my mom that my friends and I decided to plan an event to honor our mothers and raise money for breast cancer awareness. The three of us are all in the “helping profession,” so it seemed fitting to pursue such an event. After much brainstorming, we decided to host a Mah Jongg fundraiser, because all of our moms are passionate players. Thus, Stay Strong and Mahj On came to fruition.
Our first event occurred last May and included over 155 guests. We raised $15,000 for the Cancer Wellness Center in Northbrook, Illinois and helped bring a nutritionist on board to their team. We worked for months on developing the event, so it was an incredible sight to see all of our hard work paid off. My proudest moment from the event was the speech that Jordyn, Moriah, and I gave. We each talked about our moms’ experiences with breast cancer, and how it affected us—myself as a 20-something, Jordyn as a teenager, and Moriah in first grade. After each speech, we presented our moms with a bouquet of flowers. There was not a dry eye in the room. Stay Strong and Mahj On is now planning a New York event, and our second annual Chicago event.
I cannot count the number of women—and Mah Jongg players—I have met who have been affected by breast cancer, either themselves or through a family member’s battle. Although breast cancer and Mah Jongg may seem disconnected, the two have more parallels than one could imagine. Many people have approached me saying that Mah Jongg has helped them to relax during their treatment, or that they continue their weekly Mahj groups because it helps them socialize and take their mind off of their struggle. Mah Jongg is not only a social game, but also helps invigorate the mind. There is research on Mah Jongg and cognitive stimulation, which is beneficial for those of all ages. I want to assist breast cancer survivors in finding an outlet such as Mah Jongg that will help to make their fight easier.
My mom’s battle helped me turn a negative situation into a positive one through the creation of Stay Strong and Mahj On. And after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, my mom is now cancer free. I’m so grateful that due to this unfortunate situation, I am now able to help those who are affected by breast cancer, all while playing my favorite game.
For more information, please visit our website at: www.staystrongandmahjon.org