It's not easy to rewind the clock emotionally and fully remember the trauma of being diagnosed with breast cancer. But I feel it's important to share my ordeal with the women who dread going for a checkup.
My journey with cancer started in July 2002, when I was 36. I was very fortunate to have been diagnosed at an early stage. At that time my son was 8 years old, and I was his superhero. Being a single mother, I was his world and so was he to me.
The rude wake-up call:
On a lazy afternoon on 20/7/2002, I noticed an abnormal nodule in my breast which initially looked like an abnormal rib. Later, after repeated self-examination, it turned out to be a nodule which was bony and hard.
When I met my surgeon, I was closely monitoring the expression in his eyes. He said clearly that unless proven otherwise, it's a malignancy.
A biopsy was done the following day.
My friends and colleagues were in a dilemma. Finally, it was conveyed to me that I had Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma. I underwent blood tests, sonography, X-ray chest, CT scan, bone scan and ensured it was limited to the breast. Later, mastectomy was planned, as a treatment protocol.
The news of cancer diagnosis brings your life and your plans to a screeching halt. I never thought something like this would happen to me. Suddenly I was surrounded by chaos. I was devastated, shocked, numb and went through PTSD. The breast cancer diagnosis completely turned my world upside down.
My precious world:
My life revolved around my 9 yr old son Aniket. I was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, insecurity and worries about him as I was not sure as to how my cancer would behave. And, my sweetheart son was constantly trying to find out what was going wrong with his Maa, whom he had never seen low.
One day he overheard that I was suffering from cancer. Being a 9-year-old kid he asked me "You don't smoke, eat tobacco or have alcohol, so how did you get cancer?" Oh, my darling. I didn't have words to answer him.
My Firm Resolve:
I have always been strong, positive and a risk-taker. But cancer diagnosis had brought me down. Everything happened so quickly, and I was walking fast, driving fast, eating fast. I made the decisions immediately, I pulled myself from the gloomy clouds of the thoughts and immediately started working towards the treatment.
My focus was on undergoing the surgery, then chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy as per the need and getting back to normalcy. Because I wanted to have fun with my son, go out with him, play with him, and do everything I used to do before.
Then came the day of surgery. I could not sleep the night before surgery. I knew the survival and the recurrence rate of breast cancer but tried not to think about it. I took a deep breath and narrowed my focus on what mattered now.
Post-mastectomy I started planning my diet, my short walks, my wrinkle-free clothes to be used during a chemo session, short haircut so that I don't see long strands of hair falling and scarfs to cover baldness.
The Nasty Chemos:
Then came the 1st Chemo. I started having hair loss, bone pain, nausea, vomiting, oral and throat ulcerations, loss of appetite, dry skin, hot flushes, mood swings, low energy, and exhaustion. All I could do is keeping myself composed rather than crying on its side effects.
It's very difficult for me to even imagine the fear, anxiety, stress, agony, faith, hope, love, trust, gratitude that I experienced while the chemo infusion was going on.
I knew losing hair, was inevitable. But to experience it while seeing myself in the mirror, was a nasty thing. This is because appearance was something which used to remind me of my illness. Still, the love in my son's eyes and the care he was taking made me stronger than before.
How did I pull through?
What helped me get through was my innate love for life, my love for my son, my belief that life is worth fighting for, as well as my knowledge that cancer is beatable. My son, my family, my friends and most importantly my patients helped me go on.
On the last day of chemo, I fought back tears looking at the nursing staff, the junior doctors whom I had started to adore. I was so thankful to all of them also including my surgeon, my anesthetist, my pathologist, my physician, my friends and my colleagues.
A lesson learned well:
Cancer is not only about pain, stress, or agony. It's a learning experience.
I learned so much while going through it. I felt the unconditional love of my family and friends, as they were and are precious jewels. The realisation of how blessed I had been over the years has taught me how to be more patient than ever.
My innate need to control situations has stopped dead in its tracks, most importantly, I have learned to accept help from others, and I am more compassionate to others' needs, care and troubles in their lives than ever before.
Now I say 'I love you' with greater conviction than ever before. I want to inspire and serve others as I move forward in my life with an even greater sense of purpose.
In our country, 70% of cancers are detected very late and hence the treatment results are limited. This lack of awareness coupled with late detection gives arise to a misconception that cancer means death.
This is how I help other women fight back:
I have started working with the 'Snehaanchal Palliative Care Center' to make a difference for terminally ill cancer patients through their last journey. They have medical, psychological, physical, spiritual, emotional and social pain that is addressed during the stay with us.
Yes, these patients have special needs, need for special care and love. We do go for home visits to take care of patients who wish to be at home during their last days and all of this is done for free. Being with these terminally ill cancer patients, a thought came to my mind : Why not to limit the disease before it limits our life? Hence, I started awareness and screening at the site free of cost.
I started working with all sections of society through awareness presentations and free mammography and Pap smears. I tried giving special attention to rural and low socioeconomic strata who, due to financial constraints or inaccessibility cannot reach for screening and early treatment.
Therefore, I want to reach as many people as possible to make them aware of the disease and promote screening for early detection and treatment which is highly effective in controlling the disease. I want to let everyone know that they should not be just aware of cancer, but they should act on it and get screened for early diagnosis.
A lot of us think that we are invincible, but we should start putting ourselves on the to-do list. Up to 90% of breast cancer can be self-diagnosed, which is why it is important to know the early signs of breast cancer and regularly do self-examinations.
I want to salute all women who do not live in fear but value their lives enough to go for their annual check-ups and do their monthly self-examinations.
I survived cancer because I had someone special to live for. My son's touch and smile were the most significant treatments which even outpaced the impact of drugs.