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Sudhir Nikharge (Bone Cancer): Battle With Cancer And Rejection

Sudhir Nikharge (Bone Cancer): Battle With Cancer And Rejection

Travel, badminton, trekking—these were my passions. As an active kid, I loved roaming around every corner of the house. In December 1992, I went trekking with my friends. While on the trek, I noticed some swelling around my knee. It didn’t hurt while I was walking, but it did when I tried to climb. I had no idea that these were signs of bone cancer in my knee. When I came back, I visited the hospital for a check-up. The doctors were perplexed. Initially, there was no confirmation of cancer. They suggested that maybe I had lost fluid between my knee, and the swelling was due to friction. After trying out a couple of things, the doctor told us to do a Biopsy.

Osteosarcoma Diagnosis

When the doctors came out of the operation theatre, they said, "This looks like cancer; we will have to amputate it." My mom was shocked and asked them if they were sure it was cancer. The doctors recommended an MRI scan as a confirmatory test. My mom kept all this to herself. On March 12, 1993, I was in the MRI machine when I heard a sound. When I returned to the hospital, it was ravaged with rubble and dust. The bomb blast had shaken the very place that was the giver of life.

Osteosarcoma Treatment

I was moved to a separate ward and after a couple of days, we got to know that I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Since chemotherapy is said to be one of the most effective types of cancer therapy, we decided to give it a try. I underwent a heavy dose of chemotherapy for 7 to 9 days. Those seven days were a blur because I was mostly sedated. My only instruction was to drink more and more fluids. So, I would get up, puke, drink, and sleep. That was my life for seven days.

There were signs of recovery from Osteosarcoma but post-chemo, tiny round things popped up on my body. It was a side-effect of those heavy medicines. New medicines were recommended to treat it. In those days, one cycle of Chemotherapy would cost Rs. 1,45,000, and I went through two of them. Plus, those medicines that were used to treat osteosarcoma cost another two and a half lakhs.

Surgery

On my 18th birthday, on May 20, 1993, I went for a check-up. The doctor said that Surgery would have to be performed, and they were unsure about the outcomes. They said they might have to amputate me, giving me a life of 3 to 5 years. They told me that I would have to survive on a total knee replacement. I told them that I was ready to undergo Surgery in order to get rid of my cancer.

At that time, I felt it was a very heroic thing to do, but as I returned to my ward, the life-crushing realization dawned on me. After the surgery, I wouldn't be able to do the things I loved; trekking, badminton and everything else would have to come to an end. You were not exposed to stories of any artificial legs in those times, so I thought my life was over. I would live like a disabled, dependent on people all my life. At 18, when most people are running towards their dreams, I was running away from mine. That's when I contemplated ending my life.

But, a nurse in the hospital gave me a different perspective on life. She told me stories of people who have lost both legs and still survive positively in their lives. In the hospital, I survived with the help of my friends. They would come early in the morning, read my lessons to me, then go to college, come back and stay till 6 in the evening. They fed me and helped me recover. People told my parents many nasty things like it was due to their bad karma that I had cancer. But, my mom was my source of strength. She stood by me like a rock

Post-surgery

I realized I had to put up a brave front because if I broke down, it would be too much for my parents to bear. I recovered from osteosarcoma but had to wear a caliper, a metal bracket typically worn by polio patients, because my knee wasn't strong enough to support my weight after undergoing a total knee replacement (TKR) process. I missed a year and graduated in 1995. During my graduation, relatives told my dad to get me a disability certificate so I could work at a phone booth to survive. They said that since I had a limp, I wouldn't get any good jobs. My dad believed such things and pressured me to get the certificate.

I didn't want to do it because I knew I could achieve more in my life. My dad and I had regular fights over this. My relatives were trying to help, but it was more out of social sympathy. I told my mom I would only use my disability certificate if I became mentally disabled from fighting my cancer. By then, I had gained some strength and was free from the caliper.

Financial troubles

My father owned a small shop in Parel while my mother was a homemaker. We were three children: my elder sister, me, and my younger sister. The treatment had left us drowning in debt. My parents had to repay the money they had borrowed. They couldn’t afford another year without me earning. My dream of becoming a marketing or advertising professional ended there. I started working with a CA, then got an opportunity to work with Standard Chartered Bank. Throughout this time, I kept going for my regular check-ups.

Again on May 20, my friends came over, and the day passed. The next morning, I realized I couldn't stand. I called my parents, and I was rushed to the hospital. I was lifted with the bedsheets since I couldn't stand on my own. We found out that the TKR had broken. The upper piece, attached to the thigh bone, was smaller, causing me to suffer a lateral lag. My knee would bend sideways like a pendulum, up to 15 to 20 degrees. Unable to walk with that, the caliper was back. I had to wear padded shoes because it led to my leg shortening by two and a half inches. Knowing it wouldn’t work, the doctor suggested another surgery, which would cost around three and a half lakhs.

By that time, we were broke, so at night, my parents discussed selling the house and shop to live in the village, while I could live here with my uncle. Our doctor advised us that through medical social work (MSW), we could raise money. In 1999, I was operated on again, and the TKR was much better.

A new beginning

After that, I went through multiple roles in different companies and finally joined a Singaporean company. I met my wife through a matrimonial site. She was a Biotech MBA from Pune. In 2011, we were blessed with my daughter Anvita. When she was about 7 to 8 months old, we noticed a white spot in her eye while clicking pictures from certain angles. This was one of the symptoms of cancer in children.

Our Daughter's Cancer Diagnosis

When we consulted a doctor, she diagnosed my daughter with retinoblastoma, a form of cancer. They recommended enucleation and getting her an artificial eye. We were shocked, and I began to wonder if it was because of me that my daughter had cancer. I sought a second opinion, where I was advised to return to India since enucleation surgeries were best performed there.

Treatment

We didn't want our daughter to have an artificial eye, so we explored every possible cancer therapy. She started her chemotherapy, during which she lost her hair. The retinoblastoma disappeared after six cycles, but it kept coming back. Finally, the doctor told us that enucleation was the only option, as more chemotherapy could cause spots on her face and potentially damage her retina, leading to a loss of natural vision. She underwent enucleation in 2014. She now has a prosthetic eye and is enjoying life in grade four.

We have been very open about our story, although people advised us to hide it because she’s a girl and will eventually need to get married. We refused to be constrained by such notions. As we shared our story, we found that it benefited many others.

Parting message

My message to people is that if you run from your problems, your problems will chase you, but if you confront them, they go away. So, stop running from your problems; instead, run after them.

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