It’s not very 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 disease with the women who dread going for checkup be it a mammogram or examination by doctor or self-examination. 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.
My life was as normal as anyone else’s so was my day. It was 20/7/2002 afternoon when I was relaxing a bit and I noticed a nodule in my breast which initially looked like an abnormal rib. Later after repeated self-examination found it to be a nodule which was bony hard fixed and the diagnosis was quite clear in my mind.
When I met my surgeon, I was closely monitoring expression in his eyes while he was examining me. He very clearly said unless proved otherwise it’s a malignancy.
A biopsy was done the following day. My friends and colleagues were in a dilemma as to how the report would be said to me. 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 made sure it was limited to the breast. Later, mastectomy was planned, as a treatment protocol.
I am an eternal optimist so never thought something like this would happen to me. Suddenly I was surrounded by chaos. I was devastated, shocked, numb and worried as any other person. The breast cancer diagnosis completely turned my world upside down at that moment- this would be an understatement. I have had been through shock, PTSD, woe-is-me and strangely enough……. gratitude… what a roller coaster ride. The news of cancer diagnosis brings your life and your plans to a screeching halt.
A thought came to my mind that with no family history or risk factor why this thing has happened to me. Early in the day I was as normal as anyone, had everything going for me and the next day I was working hard to become a cancer conqueror.
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 — Maa 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.
I have always been a strong, positive and risk-taker. But cancer diagnosis had brought me down. Everything happened so quickly — 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 was not able to sleep the night before surgery. Although Post-op was uneventful I tried to manage it somehow. 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.
Then came the 1st Chemo. I planned my chemo sessions on Saturday afternoon and continued my work throughout the week. I started having hair loss, bone pain, nausea, vomiting, oral & throat ulcerations, loss of appetite, dry skin, hot flushes, mood swings, low energy, and exhaustion. But I kept myself busy by continuing my medical practice throughout the treatment.
I thought Chemo to be the nastiest to happen but I would say it’s how positively you look at chemotherapy, and that is how you can keep yourself strong 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.
Chemotherapy brought with it hair fall, I was scared to comb my hair and finally when I did comb I was afraid to see how many are left behind. 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 my son considered me to be the most beautiful person around. The love in his eyes and the care he was taking made me comfortable and even stronger than before.
What helped me get through was my innate and very deep 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 tried to hold my tears back looking at the nursing staff, the junior doctors whom I have grown to adore every single day. I was so thankful to all of them also including my surgeon, my anesthetist, my pathologist, my physician, and my friends and colleagues.
It is hard to describe but it is like a movie of my life in fast motion. There are faces of doctors, snippets of chemo infusions, friends & family members that made my journey easier. Most importantly, 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.
Cancer is not only about pain, stress, agony …… I learned so much while going through it… the unconditional love of my family & friends, as they were and are precious jewels, the realization of how the blessed life I have had over the years, I have learned to be more patient than I have ever been in my entire life. 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 & serve others as I move forward in my life with an even greater sense of purpose.
In our country, 70–80% of cancers are detected late-stage and hence the treatment results are limited which gives a general impression of cancer meaning death. It’s a misconception brought due to lack of awareness and early detection.
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 & 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 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 are not able to reach for screening and early treatment.
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.