My Breast Cancer Journey
I call myself a conquerer. I’ve had Breast Cancer three times in my life. I was first diagnosed with Breast Cancer in my right breast in 1998 when I had just turned 40. My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she expired due to it. Therefore, I was told to be vigilant of its symptoms, and I could quickly identify when I showed small symptoms of Breast Cancer. I underwent a lumpectomy and axillary clearance. After that, I went through Chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and in six months, I was good to go.
Again in 2001, Breast Cancer knocked on my doors one again, this time in the left breast. I again went through the same process of surgery, Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy.
In 2017, cancer again came knocking on my door after 16 years. I was again diagnosed with Breast Cancer in my right breast, and I underwent a mastectomy and Chemotherapy. I am still undergoing hormone therapy, which means I have to take a pill a day for the next five years.
When I first got diagnosed, my son was nine years old, and my daughter was 12. I sat down with them and explained that yes, I have cancer, but I will be staying around with them to watch them grow up. I didn’t want my kids to learn about my Breast Cancer diagnosis from another person.
Honestly, I was never worried about my stage of cancer. I was never aware of which grade or stage of cancer I had. I always felt that those terminologies were for the doctors and not for us to worry about.
Becoming a Volunteer
During my cancer journeys, I realized that women in India need a lot of handholding. Fortunately, I came from an affluent background, and I had access to many facilities that others were not privileged enough to get. Women during that time were ignorant, even while sitting in the hospital. I started talking to patients right from my own journey while waiting for Chemotherapy or Radiotherapy. This is how my cancer caregiving journey started. There are many patients who don’t have the facility to approach doctors like us, and most of the time, their questions remain unanswered. Seeing all this, I decided that this is something that I should do if I defeat cancer.
I am not part of any NGO, and along with 4-5 other volunteers, we give counseling to cancer patients in Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. We give post-operative Breast Cancer sessions to all the patients after Breast Cancer Surgery. What happens is our patients get operated and go home the very next day, with the sutures and the drain pipe intact. After my surgery, I realized that we were left with very little information about what had happened and what things we should do next. While I was fortunate enough to get all this information, I knew that several others were less fortunate. It is very important for the patients to go home with a healthy mind, and this is what we try to ensure through the post-operative sessions. The first thing that we do is educating them on how to take care of the sutures and the drain pipe. The second is to tell them to take care of their arm because, in most Breast Cancer Surgery cases, the axilla is also operated upon. And if they don’t take enough care of their arms, they may develop a condition called Lymphedema. We also teach them arm exercises as they must do these from the first day itself after Surgery. If they don’t do these exercises, they may end up having a condition called the frozen shoulder, which is even more painful than the actual Surgery. These are the three main points that we talk about from a medical sense.
When I talked to the patients, I spent the initial 10-15 minutes trying to establish an emotional connection with them. If a patient feels that there are others also who are going through the same journey as her, she realizes that she is not alone in this world. This will have a huge psychological impact on her. I also tell them that I could be a role model for them as I have defeated Breast Cancer three times, and when I say I know how it feels to undergo chemotherapy, they know that I really know how it feels to undergo Chemotherapy.
We also talk about body images, prostheses, wigs and reconstruction surgeries. We also give them handouts of everything we have told them to refer to it even after going home.
Recently, we have also started a pre-operative session for patients that are scheduled to go for Surgery. Women going in for Breast Cancer Surgery most often have doubts such as why I have to undergo a surgery, why she didn’t need surgery, why the doctor told me it would be a lumpectomy but woke up to realize that they have done a mastectomy and such. We advise and tell them about everything that they would go through so that they can expect what to happen and reduce their anxieties.
Our body has this inherent capacity to heal by itself. The patients don’t realize that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I feel that cancer is really a mind game. The power of our subconscious is really a great strength that will influence the outcome of our cancer journey. We just need to recognize our inner strength.
Chemotherapy has many side effects, but there are medicines to take care of them. It’s not like we suffer these side effects for days; it’s just for the initial 2-3 days before we get the medicines to control those side effects.
All three times that I was diagnosed, I had found it out through self-examination. Therefore, I cannot Stress enough on the importance of Breast Cancer. I would love to urge every woman out there reading this to do regular self-examination. I can be the greatest example of the fact that it works well. Once a month, you can easily spend 10 minutes on your own body.
Also, women are afraid to self-examine because they are afraid of getting diagnosed with Breast Cancer. But what I have to say to these women is that it is a good thing that you are diagnosed because that will make your treatment that much easier. Early detection is the key to a successful treatment.
I was living in the US and had moved to India only a couple of years before the cancer diagnosis. Both my kids were born there, and I was living a very healthy and peaceful life. Now, I would say cancer has changed my life. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, but I come from a very orthodox family, and I was not allowed to study to become one. I have always had this desire to work in the medical field for the patients’ service, and cancer has now given me the chance to do that. If I was never diagnosed with Breast Cancer in the first place, I don’t think I would have been doing what I am doing now in the first place.
Everyone should be very vigilant about their bodies and always check and consult a doctor if they find any signs or symptoms. Our body will always give us a sign, and we should never ignore it. We should also be never fearful of any disease. Our body has an inner strength to heal, and we should use that. It is essential that caregivers also take care of their own bodies because they can take care of the patient only if they are well in the first place.