Life, interrupted: A first-person account of battle with deadly cancer

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 27, 2015 17:26 IST

As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. The latter comes as a grim reminder every March. The former, well, you never expect it, no matter how well-prepared you think you are.

Intimations of my own mortality came without warning this January, when a routine mammogram showed microcalcifications. The radiologist suggested I have a biopsy. Exactly 20 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 55 then. I was now 52. I had known for two decades that I had a 50% chance of getting it. But wasn't it too early?

Doctors refer to my mother's cancer politely as "family history". So, given my "family history", I have an annual mammogram. But I never expected to be told that I'd have to have a biopsy. You often look at the words '50% chance' and assume that you will be the other 50%; the half that will never get it. A friend reacted in horror when I told her about the biopsy. "But you were supposed to outlive us all," she said. Honestly, I'd thought so too.

My mother's still alive and breast cancer is not her problem. My first question to myself was: How far was I going to let it become mine?

Inevitably, once you enter into the domain of doctors, you are in for an array of tests and questions. After the first radiologist, I went to my gynaecologist, who suggested another mammogram. She explained that microcalcifications are too small to see or touch and that a mammogram on a digital mammography machine was necessary to either confirm or question the first mammogram result. Indeed, nothing showed up on the sonogram that was part of the first mammogram "deal"; nothing showed up on a physical exam either.

It was after this that I went onto the internet to do my own research on cancer, for the first time, and learnt that calcifications are normal after a certain age, and are usually benign. Random large calcifications are almost always benign. Anyone with a slight knowledge of medical terms knows that benign means no cancer cells. And I had done any number of stories on cancer, plus of course there was my "family history". But when calcifications are micro and form a pattern, then they are "suspicious for malignancy". Mine were all those things.

I am now as familiar with a mammogram machine as I am with my mobile phone. It's hard to know which form of technology I am more grateful to. Mammography hurts like hell - or it did, until it saved my life. Now it's one of those things I have to do. The vacuum biopsy I underwent also happens with the help of a mammogram machine, given that those calcifications cannot be seen or felt.

I told my sister, as we waited for the biopsy result - it takes at least a week to know if the Big C is going to hit you or not - that we could either enjoy ourselves or weep at home every day. We picked the first option and yes, Alyque Padamsee's Jesus Christ Superstar was almost as enjoyable in 2015 as when I first saw it in 1974.

Everyone around me was certain that I would be fine, that there would be nothing. So when the biopsy result said 'carcinoma', I seemed to be the only person prepared. But what option do you have? I had limited my forays on the internet to just two - to check on microcalcifications and then on the exact nature of a vacuum biopsy - because just as it creates false fears it can also create false hope. I wanted to deal with reality and my reality was that the switch had flipped. My body had started that process of creating cells that lead to tumours.

Being fatalistic is no use either. You have to fight the good fight, and you don't realise that until you're facing it. It's been about 20 days since I had the surgery that removed a lump from my left breast and lymph nodes from under my arm. I've been really lucky. Having caught the disease so early, there is now "no evidence of disease". For this, I have to thank the doctors who pushed me to get those mammograms done regularly and the doctors who caught it and dealt with it pronto.

It was a month from the first red flag to the surgery. Procrastination can be a death wish at a time like this.

So now I'm dealing with the other certainty, and calls from my chartered accountant. I still have more treatment to do, but that's life. And right now, I'm grateful for that more than anything. Meanwhile, I suggest you go and get that mammogram or whatever horrible test you need. What are you waiting for?

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