My journey started in 2010 during my final year in engineering. Throughout the year, I had several health setbacks and had consulted several doctors with no conclusive diagnosis. I had many digestive issues, which ultimately had no correlation with the nasopharyngeal carcinoma that I was eventually diagnosed with. It was like fighting with an unknown enemy.
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Diagnosis
One day, when I was playing football with my friends, I completely blacked out, and after that, I realized that this was something very serious. I met two senior and renowned doctors who asked for a CT scan and some other tests. The CT scan revealed a mass in my nasal cavity. I did a biopsy, which finally revealed that I had stage 3 nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
The diagnosis came as quite a setback to my parents. I was prepared for the news as I had already read a lot on my symptoms and was preparing for the worst. I had almost two weeks between my Biopsy and its results, so I had enough time to read and prepare for a cancer diagnosis. Coincidentally, the Biopsy reports came one day after my engineering final exam results, which I had done pretty well. I was at a crossroads in my life, deciding which company to join, when the nasopharyngeal carcinoma came along, and I had to give up on all of my career dreams.
Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Treatment
The nasopharyngeal carcinoma treatment that I had to undergo was torturous, to say the least. I had to undergo 37 radiation cycles along with six Chemotherapy cycles. While it sounded okay on paper to me, I was not aware of the magnitude of the side effects that I was getting in to. The first two weeks of Radiation therapy were manageable, but things started to turn for the worst from the third week onwards. I couldn’t eat or drink properly and could barely speak. Compared to nowadays, Radiation therapy was not as much focused as it is nowadays, affecting a much larger area and consequent side effects.
Along with chemotherapy, my daily life became a daily struggle. The doctor suggested inserting a peg so that I could intake food and water through that. Those were tough times, and I had never imagined that I would need to be confined to a wheelchair. I always had the belief that I would be able to come through to the other side.
I weighed around 90 kgs before the treatment started, and within the first cycle of chemotherapy, I had lost about 30 kilos. Due to all the weight loss and treatment, my entire appearance had changed, and people could not recognize me. My skin had scarred, my neck had shrunk, and I had become very thin. Even my neighbors could not recognize me during those times. People used to make remarks on my looks, and there was still a lot of stigmas attached to cancer and cancer patients, even at that time.
On most occasions, I had to take the onus and explain to my loved ones that it is okay that I am looking like this; I am dealing with cancer, and it is normal for the appearance to change like this.
I am grateful to my doctors, nursing staff, parents, friends and family, who were very supportive throughout my cancer journey. It never felt like I was fighting a lone battle. Hats off to my parents, who have actually given me a second birth again after taking care of me for the nine months of my treatment.
After the treatment, I wanted to get back to the old normal, but a new normal awaited me. Initially, every day was a struggle. I was also a vocalist, and therefore, I found out that I couldn’t possibly sing again. My appearance was also a concern, and the doctors assured me that this was just a phase that would go away with time. But it took almost 4-5 years for me to speak and look the way I used to before the nasopharyngeal carcinoma diagnosis.
But rather than focusing on the negatives, there were a lot of positives that I could focus on, and I turned my focus towards them. I found out that engineering was not really my thing and switched to the teaching field. I started teaching and also started working as a volunteer for a cancer NGO. I developed an interest in counseling and worked on it. It was very fulfilling and gratifying to give back to the cancer society through my talks, and I really felt great about it. From my experience, I knew that if I had a counselor, it would have made my cancer journey a lot easier, as it would have been a place for me to vent my feelings and deal with all the losses that I had to endure. I slowly realized that counseling was something that I enjoyed and was fulfilling for me, so I decided to study further and become a certified counselor. I did a PG Diploma in counseling and then did a Masters abroad in the US. Its been over a year now that I have started my own counseling venture called “Inner Calling”.
As a society, we are still not very open about seeking help for mental health. The idea behind calling it “Inner Calling” was primarily to address the stigma and taboo that has been attached to it over the generations. There is a lot of positive work done now to reduce the stigma associated with cancer, but there is still a long way to go with respect to the mental health aspect of cancer patients. I feel the hospitals should take the initiative to Stress the importance of mental health and holistic healing during a cancer journey.
My work in India faces several challenges, primarily because there aren’t many ready to invest in this field. But aside from that, I am satisfied and happy about having made my switch from a career with lucrative packages to this one as this is much more gratifying for me. Many advised me to do the Masters abroad in Engineering instead of counseling, as I had done well in Bachelors, but I was fixed on what I had to do.
Role of Mind
I knew that my physical recovery had started when the peg tube was removed, but I was still to come to terms with all the losses that I had to endure on a mental note. Even though they never made me feel that way, I had this feeling that I was still an added expense to my parents. It was like I had a roadmap in front of me, which had collapsed like a pack of cards after the nasopharyngeal carcinoma diagnosis. Suddenly, it all became about living to see the next day.
I also had a near-death experience during one of my Chemotherapy sessions. Nobody knows what happened then; even the doctors could not explain clearly what had happened. I was losing all my senses, and it felt as if I had reached a point of utmost bliss. I cannot rationalize that experience, but it was like the most peaceful moment I had felt all my life. I could see a white light in front of me, and it was a totally unexplainable experience. But the whole experience changed me from one who saw the world in zeroes and ones to one who saw the world in shades of grey.
During those recovery days, it was very hard to stay optimistic. Even if I pushed myself, either I would fall ill, or my body would give up. It was a very frustrating period where you feel that you can do something, but your body doesn’t allow you to do that. It was a slow and lengthy process, but I found out that it would become much easier for me to accept the cancer diagnosis rather than stay in denial.
I was very excited to hear the news that I was cancer-free, but at the same time, I am cautious because there is always the chance of a relapse. Therefore, I am undergoing a strict and healthy lifestyle, doing regular scans and hoping that each result comes clean. But it helps me stay rooted, as I see each day as a blessing.
The most important message that I have to give is that we should never ignore our mental health. Not only cancer patients, but everyone should take mental health as much a priority as physical health. Never be hesitant to reach out to a counselor as it can ease your cancer journey. It is also essential to connect with support groups as the patients will realize that they are not alone in this battle, and there are many more undergoing the same journey as them.