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Anil Khanna (Breast Cancer Caregiver)

Anil Khanna (Breast Cancer Caregiver)

The journey began in late 2017; my wife, Pooja, felt a lump in her left breast. For some reason, she kept the news to herself, thinking she could manage it, and it was only in February 2018 that we had the first mammogram done. I clearly remember the day we got the report because it coincided with our only daughter's birthday. We got the results, and her cancer was categorized at stage 5, which means that 95% of the tumor was malignant.

Pooja's mother was also a cancer survivor, and she was diagnosed in her late 50s, but she overcame the disease and is still a very healthy person in her 70s. The fact that both the women had cancer scares me because I have a daughter, and I wouldn't want her to go through this.

Our first reaction to the news

Initially, like everyone else, our first reaction was shock, but the news did not even sink in for us. We questioned why it was happening to her and why we received the information, especially on our daughter's birthday, which was supposed to be a day of celebration. Pooja put up a mask and gave me the strength we all needed to get through this.

From her family's side, her mother was particularly shocked because she had walked her daughter's journey, and there is nothing more painful in life than to see your children suffer. I could see the pain that my mother-in-law was going through.

My side of the family was equally troubled, but Pooja is a person who takes everything that comes with a smile on her face and that smile, and her character gave us the strength to face this monster and fight till the very end.

Treatments she underwent

She went through all the treatments we could get our hands on. She smiled, trusted every doctor we came across, and did not doubt anything. She went through a multi-faceted treatment. We started with Ayurveda and went with it for a couple of months, after which we went for immunotherapy. I was going through all the medical journals then, and there was a Nobel prize for immunotherapy, so that gave us some hope.

It took us some time to realize that commercialization is better than everything else. After immunotherapy, we chose to go for mainstream treatment, which involved the mastectomy of the left breast, followed by first-generation chemotherapy and a round of radiotherapy.

After going through all these treatments, she was put on hormone therapy. Within six to eight months, the hormone therapy also failed to work, and the doctors advised her to get her ovaries removed since the cancer was more estrogen driven. That was another surgery that she went through, and after that, she was put on second-generation oral chemotherapy, which was also hormonal therapy.

But things were not under control after this, and she experienced a lot of pain because cancer had metastasized to her spine and hip bones. She was again put on radiotherapy, which also failed to work, and she went for the third round of chemotherapy. We also briefly tried the integrative approach and included supplemental support into the therapies that she was already taking.

There were good times in this journey when we felt we were winning the battle, but whenever cancer took two steps back, it came back with four times the force. We ran out of options to try out, and she was then put on third-generation chemotherapy. All of this was affecting her immune system very much. And we came to know about gene therapy which was primarily practiced in Japan, and this was during the first lockdown, so we could not even travel within the country.

These were the treatments she went through, and we can blame it on any of these treatments. I tried everything I could find for her. There were a lot of experts in the UK and USA, and I used to get on a call with them to get their opinions on what we could do, and Pooja would take everything without any questions but with just hope.

Comorbidities due to the treatment

The doctors call these the side effects of the treatment, but I believe these are comorbidities. Due to the overload of the treatments, her immune system completely broke down. All this led to her not having energy and losing her appetite, along with hardening of nails and loss of hearing, and she became very anemic. And as the disease progressed, all these small symptoms accumulated and caused liver failure.

Things that helped me through the journey

I never looked for ways to cope with the whole process. Pooja took everything that was given to her head-on, and seeing her be so brave, motivated me to provide the best I could for us to win the battle and that motivation took me through the journey without any second thoughts. Her strength kept me moving; if it weren't for her, I would have lost this battle much earlier.

Another important thing is that we reached out to support groups and spoke to many people who were going through the same thing. And I am not saying this to offend anyone, but sometimes a person who has gone through the same thing as you understands you better than anyone close to you.

My advice to everyone reading

There are a few things I like to tell cancer patients and caregivers,

My advice to cancer patients is not to take any symptoms lightly and get thorough checkups. The earlier you identify a problem, the better the chances of cure. If it's advanced cancer, please don't look for a cure and follow aggressive treatment. Quality of life is far better than longevity. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, the cure is still not there for advanced cases, and miracles are rare. When you are on this journey, it's far more critical to make changes to your lifestyle eat healthy, physical well-being, mental health, etc. Your health comes first and then your family's health. Live every moment.

My advice to caregivers would be to take care of your mental health by joining the right support system. Be prepared, it could be a long haul, and you need to have patience and resources to fight this battle. Live every moment, be their strength, and derive all the necessary changes to support yourself or the patient.

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