Early in 2017, I developed a swelling on my right calf that looked like a tiny bump. I obviously thought nothing of it in the beginning and brushed it off as just a small inflammation. But a few weeks later, I noticed that it had gotten bigger, the swelling now resembled a hard lump. That’s when my wife and my mother got concerned and suggested I get it checked.
The first doctor who examined me at AIIMS told me to undergo a fine-needle aspiration (FNAC). The test is a kind of biopsy procedure to examine lumps and masses that might be cancerous. I still wasn’t panicking though; I genuinely thought that it was going to be something minor, just an inflammation, maybe an infection, but nothing major. But the test results were a rude shock.
The doctors told me that I most likely had soft tissue sarcoma and that the swelling on my calf was a major symptom of that. I was absolutely shocked. I tried my best to understand what the doctor was saying, but I was too nervous and scared at that point. I couldn’t comprehend what I had because soft tissue sarcoma is not something one really hears of every day.
However, a couple of days later, I managed to push away my fear away and go in for the surgery to remove the lump. I was operated within a week of my diagnosis. Doctors removed a lump just less than 5 centimeters. The surgery went fine, but my recovery wasn’t too smooth because a skin graft was used and a substantial part of the skin from my thigh was removed. My wound wasn’t healing fast enough. I was away from work, mostly in bed, waiting for my wound to heal. These were the days I was most scared, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
Meanwhile, my worst nightmare had come true. The biopsy report confirmed that I had a high-grade soft tissue sarcoma known as myofibroblastic sarcoma — it is a rare tumor prone to relapse. The reports left me totally shattered and devoid of any hope, but my family stood by me like a rock. My wound took two and a half months to heal.
After my surgery, my first sets of scans were normal but the second follow up did not go well. Fresh scans showed two small nodules in my lungs. Once again, I found myself grappling with what this news meant. At every step of the way, I was trying to become as cancer-literate as possible! Doctors said the nodules were small and the only thing that can be done is to wait and watch. So we waited and naively hoped for the nodules to disappear. But that obviously didn’t happen. By the next follow up, both the nodules had grown considerably large in size. The doctors were then officially convinced that my cancer had metastasized and that I had stage 4 cancer. The funny thing is that at the time, I didn’t know that stage 4 was the most severe. I thought there must a few more stages! The humor in my situation was short-lived and I had to undergo another surgery to remove both nodules. I got the surgery done at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai in October 2018. What followed was six months of intense chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is the actual scary bit of treating cancer. I’d pulled through 2 major surgeries, but chemo was a whole different ball game. On bad days, the side effects of chemo make you just about exist. I could feel myself falling into a bad place mentally, I kept thinking, Why me? But then I thought to myself that when I achieved all the great things in my life like studying at an IIT, marrying my love or working with UNICEF, I didn’t think why I was chosen, I lapped up all those successes without questions. So this too I’d have to just accept and fight on.
My 6 cycles of intense chemotherapy have ended this year in February. The latest follow up was just last week. For now, I am in remission and I hope I stay this way. I am trying not to think about the future too much. I take each day as it comes and set short-term goals for myself.
Cancer is scary and people often think, ‘I am going to die’. But you have to get out of that state of mind. Also, what helped me is to see hope in my family’s eyes. I saw them fighting for me and that helped me fight for myself.
Pankaj Mathur is now 46 and lives with his family in Jaipur. He continues to work as a Programme Specialist at UNICEF India