Ripunanda (Breast cancer): “Making our health a priority.”

It was November 2016, my father-in-law had suffered a stroke and everyone in the family was worried about him. Around the same time, I discovered a lump in my underarm, I was concerned, but I decided to not tell anyone but my husband. Things at home were already tense and I didn’t want to add to anyone’s worries. My husband and I waited for a couple of weeks to see if the lump would disappear, but it didn’t. Ultrasounds and scans confirmed that there was a lump in my right breast. I had to undergo a lumpectomy almost immediately. The biopsy afterward confirmed that the mass was malignant and that I had stage 2 breast cancer; I was 33 years old then.

For the first few months, I just couldn’t understand what had happened to me. Acceptance is the hardest bit sometimes. But I knew I had to fight this for my husband and my baby son. So I mentally prepared myself for whatever needed to be done, I was even ready to undergo a mastectomy if needed. However, doctors at the Rajiv Gandhi Hospital in Delhi suggested that I may not need a mastectomy. Instead, I underwent surgery for the removal of lymph nodes; 19 lymph nodes in my case, out of which 4 were infected.

The surgery did conserve my breast, but that wasn’t the end. Since my cancer was identified as triple-negative –one of the most aggressive forms of cancer — I needed several cycles of chemotherapy over 5 months.

During this time, I remember losing my hair to chemo. I remember this well because I am a Sikh and seeing my waist-length hair fall like that was just painful. There were days when I’d go to the park with my head covered and look at other people walking around me and I’d wonder, Why me? Why was I chosen to suffer? I also lost my father during this time. These were the months when my faith and resilience were tested the most.

Ripudaman

Somehow, I powered through and I feel like my faith in God and my husband’s support helped me the most. Just when I thought the worst was over, doctors suggested that I undergo preventive surgery to remove my ovaries. My BRCA gene test results were positive, which meant that I was at a much higher risk of developing cancer in my ovaries which could then spread to my breasts. I was devastated and couldn’t get myself to make the decision. I was scared of losing my womanhood. I had so many apprehensions running through my mind;

I didn’t know how the surgery would impact my sexual health, and doctors weren’t really ready to answer these questions. I remember crying for days on end. But once again it was my husband who stood by me, he said he didn’t care if I had ovaries; all he wanted was for me to get better. I was still putting the surgery at bay when doctors discovered a 10-centimeter cyst in my ovary.

Thankfully, the cyst wasn’t cancerous, but it prompted me to get the surgery done. Not having the surgery would have been like a sword hanging over my head all the time. In hindsight, it was a good decision. It took a lot of courage, but I am glad I did it.

I am 35 now and as of today, I am cancer-free. I still have to undergo regular tests and checkups every three months, but I am better than I was last year. Cancer is a beast, but you have to fight as a warrior, treat it like any other disease and fight it.

These two years have also taught me that life is completely unpredictable and that anyone can fall sick at any time. Don’t take your health for granted. And especially the women out there, when it comes to your health, I’d say “Be Selfish”. I say this because so many women, especially in India, sideline their health for the sake of their families. We need to spread awareness about breast cancer, women need to know about the signs and symptoms and they should know when to get help.

My aim now is to go out and talk to people. I want to spread awareness about breast cancer and also cast away the stigma around it. I was lucky to have access to good healthcare, but I know that so many women are not that lucky.

Ripudaman