CANCER – a word that evokes fear in most people. “It is a scary diagnosis that sounds like a death warrant. The surgeries are disfiguring, the chemotherapy is toxic making one throw up and lose hair, radiotherapy burns the skin black. This is the common perception and this fear is so real that many think it’s easier passing away from the disease instead of fighting and surviving it.”, says my cousin Ashima who is an ENT specialist and has seen her mother go through this diagnosis and treatment. I agreed with her, my own perception being the same, till she went on and said that it’s not so anymore.
“In good hands surgeries are well tolerated, chemo side effects are easily managed and advanced targeted radiotherapy can minimise collateral damage. But we need to make it more widely available and known and have to hold hands and support every cancer fighter to emerge as a cancer survivor ultimately.” Awareness and early detection are key. Just this little conversation with Ashima was enough to reduce my fear of the C word.
February the 4th is the World Cancer Day and today I want to do my bit in raising awareness of cancer. Like me, I am hoping you will end up a little more aware and a little less scared of Cancer after reading this blog. So, come with me as I share stories of some courageous people who have met cancer head on and taken the challenge in their stride.
Cancer need not be the end – it can be the start of something new
Imagine finding out you have cancer, just a few months after giving birth to your second baby. I know the world around me would have crumbled. But not so for my friend Monica. She was all of 32 when she was diagnosed with this deadly disease. She had barely recovered after giving birth when she realized that the little blood that would come in her urine (which she thought was due to her pregnancy) once in a while was recurring more frequently. Worried, she consulted a doctor and her worst fears came true when she found out that it was cancer of the urinary bladder.
Devastated with the news, she realised she didn’t want to die so soon, she had barely spent any time with her little kids. But as she got over the initial shock, her thoughts turned inwards. She focused on herself, on her consciousness for the first time in many years. All her life, her mind had busied itself worrying about other people, situations from the past, planning for the future. But the diagnosis forced her to focus on the now. A new consciousness took birth in her. And she found the root of her cancer in the many roles she had taken on herself, she had suppressed herself to a point where her sole objective had been to please others, to be perfect in the various roles society had given her – wife, daughter in law, mum etc.
In her own words, she says, “I started looking at my life, my thoughts, my body, my being, more closely, more intimately, with sincerity, attention and honesty. It was as if, now I had to, there was no escaping this. I had to become aware of my shadows and own them like my kids, without judging them for who they are according to social conventions and definitions. Jealousy, hatred, anger, anxiety, restlessness and their seeming opposites were present in me, all at once. The beauty was that I did not need to hide from them, or save myself from them, or ignore or neglect them anymore. It had to be a choiceless acceptance of all of them together.”
Alongside the two surgeries, Monica started her therapy, a process that healed her inner being. For her, cancer was a new beginning. While it brought her face to face with her own ‘impermanence’, it also brought home the reality that she was not indispensable – that life, her kids, would go on even if she weren’t there. This liberated her from the demands and expectations of people that she had burdened herself with. She believes that cancer was a cheap bargain for learning the meaning of life. “I realised that the life I had been living until now was a dead life. And I started to cherish each day, step by step and not as if in a hurry to reach somewhere. If there had to be Joy in this life, it must be NOW or it will be never. And that Joy was something I had access to, even in these seemingly dire circumstances, owing to the free-will that we all possess.”
She has written extensively about her experience. You can read here.
Live in the moment, it is now or never
Just like Monica, Dr. Mitra’s mantra is the same. She was watching a standup comedy show with her family, feeling embarrassed because the artist Aditi Mittal was talking about bra shopping and breasts. But she paused when Aditi ended her show with the punch line, “This is for awareness about breast cancer, don’t wait to be groped and told”.
This prompted her to examine herself and sure enough, there it was – a big hard lump under her left breast. This is how life changes. Within minutes. Laughing a few minutes ago, she was now gripped with fear. But being a doctor, she checked her emotions and got herself tested the next morning. When the diagnosis was confirmed, the doctor couple lost no time in getting the right treatment.
What followed was not easy. It was a tough time and she needed all the mental and physical strength she could muster. She had decided early on that she will not be called a victim or a survivor, but a victor. Not wanting any sympathy from others, she was determined to be happy and make others happy. Undaunted by the severely debilitating chemotherapy sessions that left her almost lifeless for days, she would invite all her friends and relatives over to talk and chat as soon as she got some energy back.
Losing hair is another devastating side effect of chemotherapy, especially for women. The lowest point in this fight was perhaps the day her husband cut off whatever was left of her hair, but her resolve only strengthened. She got a mehendi tattoo done on her head and proudly shared her photographs over social media.
She also echoes what Monica believes, “cancer is not a curse, it actually teaches one how to live life. You realise the importance of life and your priorities change.” Since her diagnosis and recovery, she has made it her mission to spread awareness about cancer and has educated hundreds of women till now. Her seven principles are:
- You are the empowered one
- The outcome will be directly proportional to my will power
- Happiness no matter what
- Where there is true faith there is no fear
- Live in the moment, it is now or never
- Mind your mind
- 100% efforts, 0% expectations
Ultimately, it is the love you remember
Remember the panic last March when the lockdown was announced and we all got confined inside our own houses? But life had something else in store for my friend Gopika. She is a pediatric dentist and went to close her clinic after the lockdown was announced. Her gynecologist also happened to be there at the same time and on impulse, she thought of showing the small lump that had appeared a few weeks ago, just under her collar bone. The gynecologist advised her on the side of caution and suggested she get a mammogram done as it was anyway due. She remembers the eerie feeling as she went into the near empty hospital, normally bustling with activity. On the plus side, there were no queues and she was done quickly – except that she was advised to get and ultrasound and MRI as well. Who then advised her to see an onco surgeon. Things moved so fast, that she and her family barely had time to think but realizing the gravity of the situation, they decided to start the protocol of chemo – surgery – radiation at once rather than wait for the lockdown to end.
Breaking the news to their family was not easy – their 14 and 8 year old daughter and son, their parents. How do you share a diagnosis such as this? Gopika and Arun decided to lay it down as is. They sat their children down and explained about the disease, the treatment, the consequences. After the initial disbelief and shock, the kids understood and since they were involved in the whole situation, at some point, they even lost their fear. The news was even more devastating for their parents, no one ever expects to see their child seriously ill. But again, Gopika reassured them that breast cancer is a known devil and that with all the advance in medical science recovery rate is very good. The matter of fact approach helped, and everyone got ready to battle the next few weeks and months.
The entire treatment was done during the peak of the lockdown. A time when everyone was avoiding hospitals like the plague, Gopika and Arun had to make multiple visits. Since only one person was allowed, the entire pressure fell on Arun. But the lockdown also helped in that kids were home and both sets of parents managed to come and stay with them. With everything at home taken care of, Gopika could focus on getting well.
Those months passed in a haze but Gopika will never forget the immense love she received from everywhere. Otherwise a private person, she decided not to hold back with the news of her diagnosis. Best wishes, prayers, love, flowers, food, poured in from all corners, from unexpected people. She never felt like she was battling alone. She learnt that the ability to receive help is also important. Oftentimes, with a life changing diagnosis such as this, many people shut out the world, but she sought it, she asked for help, even if it was as simple as asking for books. “You don’t remember the pain afterwards, what you remember is all the love and care you were given, when you most needed it.”
Now that she is at the end of her treatment, she is looking forward to getting back to her old life. Her oncologist has also been very supportive and is encouraging her to go back and learn to live with it. She admits it is not easy, she still gets tired easily, but she is not someone to give up so easily! Now she is back in her clinic ready to welcome her little patients with her brilliant smile!
This was not an easy journey for any of these women, each of them went through their own private hell of pain, sickness, fears, uncertainties, a crisis of identity at times. But each of them chose that their response to cancer will be to take it head on and not give up. They all found a new perspective of life and are determined to live it to the fullest.
I also learned that cancer is probably not something to fear, with the advances in medical science, the recovery rates are much higher and people are able to get back to their normal lives. But early detection is key. We need to be more connected with our bodies, aware of any small change that may be taking place inside. So please do your health checkups regularly, examine your body for lumps (even men), skin patches or changes, keep an eye on any gut changes or sudden weight loss or any other change. In her late 40s, my mum noticed a slight change in her menstrual cycle – she could have attributed it to menopause, but she went to a doctor immediately and they caught a very early onset of cancer. I am wondering if she hadn’t done that, life may have been very different for us. Similarly, when recently her iron levels were low, her cousin suggested she do an endoscopy, just to make sure there was no unnoticed blood loss, which is an early indicator of colon cancer.
Despite the advancement in medical science, the fight for cancer has not ended and we can all do our bit. Ashima says, “We face a plethora of problems in our country regarding cancer awareness, misinformation, stigma, disbelief and the lack of proper facilities in peripheral areas from where my maximum patients came. In my own government practice, we continue to battle daily with scarce resources, poorly informed patients who had tried everything before turning up to a medical college, advanced stages due to unavailability of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or advanced surgical facilities in a timely manner.”
Keep spreading awareness, take care of yourself and empathise with those with the diagnosis. Spread some love.
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Regards, Sakshi aka tripleamommy
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