Saima Thompson : Masla Wala Cafe

Saima Thompson, is a restaurateur and blogger from Kent.  At 29, Saima was diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 lung cancer. The diagnosis came completely out of the blue with a life limiting prognosis. Through her blog and social media she is challenging the stigma attached to cancer within the South Asian communities and offering her perspective on what it’s truly like to live with this condition at a young age.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

I’m Saima Thompson, 30 years old and I run a multi award winning Pakistani restaurant with my mother Nabeela and sisters Ikra & Nafeesa called Masala Wala Cafe in South London which launched in 2015. We are an informal and relaxed set up, serving fresh home cooking.  

Most recently I have had to take a back seat role because in April 2018 I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.  Since then I have started to write a blog called Curry and Cancer as an attempt to bring my two worlds together and as great therapy! I wanted to articulate my thoughts. 

Now thanks to the diagnosis I am a writer and public speaker looking to raise awareness in BAME communities on the cultural taboos and shame around disease and cancer. I am passionate about conversation and creating dialogue due to the lack of it in our communities. 

What inspires you?

My family, they are an incredibly supportive unit full of love and great energy, I am one of 4 sisters plus my mother we are like a girl band without the musical talent!

What is the book you’ve given most as a gift, and why? 

Power of Now by Eckart Tolle is a great read and reference point. When future and health uncertainty enters my train of thought, I attempt to be in the present. Mindfulness is something we all need in our ‘noisy’ lives. 

What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?

Investing in good facial oil has been a game changer; self care is something I look to prioritise nowadays. 

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?

When I was diagnosed I had to close a relatively new business as it needed attention and I could not commit to it due to my health.  A bar restaurant concept that I had set up in Deptford, South London with my business partner Tristan Scutt from Little Nans Bar. 

At the time I felt stressed and like a failure. Upon reflection, I now realise it’s all a part of my business journey. Making those bold decisions to set up and quickly shut down and using my intuition. Acknowledging and learning from your failures ultimately becomes your strength and I have gained a great friendship and perspective from the experience. 

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why?

‘Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the roots’ .Rumi 

I think working on the power within is very important; we can be quick to blame others for our pain and suffering but ultimately it’s your attitude and mindset that can help you overcome life’s hurdles. 

In the last 2 years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

I have realised my sense of self worth, thanks to the cancer, I have started to love myself for the first time.  I have always been of service to others which makes me an excellent restaurateur but you are no good if you do not feed yourself that same love you put out. I look after myself these days, it’s one of the many things I can thank a life changing diagnosis for. 

What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world? What advice should they ignore?

Advice I would give is look to network as much as possible, get support where possible because ultimately we are all growing and learning so do not be afraid to ask, everyone has to start somewhere! 

Advice or culture they should ignore is working long hours like a badge of honour, working too much is scientifically proven to not be as efficient or healthy. Especially when young you feel the need to people please, set your boundaries. 

When you feel overwhelmed, what do you do? 

I look to stop any work/projects and do a relaxing activity such as walking or reading. Taking yourself away from the task at hand gives you rest and a fresh perspective, works every time.

I ask myself, “Can this wait?”  It’s usually a yes! 

Tell us something that would surprise us about you? 

Believe or not I am actually more at peace after my cancer diagnosis than I was before. This is due to going slower and working on me.  I have had counselling, practise mindfulness, meditation and exercise to overcome anxiety. 

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?

Accepting my mortality which we should all look to do because life isn’t guaranteed, at the age of 30 I am living proof of that. 

What would be your message to the AWMB community?

As a female British Pakistani restaurateur it is my duty to show others that the South Asian food industry is not just for men. For so long we have been told a narrative that women and men do certain jobs and that women and their food stays at home. This is not the case! Four years on and our authentic Pakistani home cooking is popular as ever, there is room for all styles to co exist in the industry.  But what we need to work on is diversifying our kitchens and encouraging South Asian women to go into hospitality, our food is world class! 

You can connect with Saima on her social media:

Restaurant  @masalawalacafe www.masalawalacafe.co.uk 

Personal blog @curryandcancer www.curryandcancer.com 

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