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Monday, Dec 16, 2019

Survivor’s tale: C for cancer, C for courage

It can’t happen to me, she said when a chance self-examination threw up the diagnosis. Little did she know that the challenge would help her reconnect with her soul

brunch Updated: Aug 03, 2019 23:49 IST
Rakhee Lalvani
Rakhee Lalvani
Hindustan Times
(Illustration: Sunil Kumar Mallik)
         

You would think that after a spate of bad times over the health of my family, I would be spared any major health crisis myself. But no. In September 2018, I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer after I discovered a lump through self-examination.

It was quite out of character for me to do a self-examination. I am the kind of person who avoids visits to doctors unless symptoms are serious or require copious doses of pain relief. In any event, according to the doctor, the breast cancer had been diagnosed ‘just in time’. I still had to go through the full-blown cancer treatment protocol – surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation – but I consider myself blessed that it was at a curable stage.

Living with the Big c

I remember freezing in disbelief when the radiologist looked at my sonography and said the lump in my breast ‘looked’ malignant. “It must be a mistake,” I told her. “I can’t possibly have it. My brother has brain cancer and my 84-year-old mother is just about recovering from lymphoma – I have to look after them!”

“Cancer has a deep sense of fear and insecurity attached to it, created by us. If you remove the ‘us’ and ‘I’ from the dynamics, you are left with your soul”

“I can understand your shock,” the radiologist said. The phrase sounded practised. Fortunately, I had taken a good friend with me, who handled the situation intelligently and without panic. What followed is now a haze of diagnostic tests, more doctors’ consultations and finally a treatment plan. Whilst I was trying to take this life challenge head on, I blocked my emotions and was still in some kind of denial.

My head was filled with thoughts and questions ranging from the inane to the life altering. “Will I be able to afford the treatment? Will I ever look and feel the same physically? Will I be able to work 12-13 hours a day as usual? Would I have the same energy? Will this reduce my life span?” I quickly moved from denial to anger and anxiety, berating myself for not having collected enough karma points to ensure a secure position in the allegedly safe and happy club.

Acceptance came much later when I was well into my chemotherapy cycles. This was when I was truly able to cope mentally and thus, physically, because this was when I had to simply deal with the issues on hand rather than magnify and complicate them.

In the initial days, what I found most annoying was the pouring in of free advice! Some would say drink papaya leaf juice. Others recommended hot coconut oil. A few more propagated the virtues of wheatgrass, soursop, and ABC (apple, beetroot and carrot blend) juices, etc. All were very sure that these remedies would guarantee a cancer-free life. This made me wonder why people are suffering the world over, given that remedies are available in our gardens and kitchens! Let me assure you, experimenting with all this is neither possible nor advisable, particularly between trying not to throw up and working on conserving energy so that you can get out of bed and carry out a few essential tasks.

Out of the darkness

For too long, I had been operating like an artificial intelligence entity like Siri, going about life in a quasi-robotic manner. In the last few months, however, I had the time to contemplate life and death. As morbid as it sounds, when it dawns on you that death may have been a not-so-distant possibility, you start to revisit how you want to lead the rest of your life. For me, it’s about being with loved ones, staying grateful for everything I have and realising God through helping others.

I am also making a few meaningful changes to my lifestyle – meals on time, more vegetables than meats in my diet, superfoods like berries and broccoli, which give physical strength, better sleep. Well-meaning folks will tell you to cut out dairy, others will tell you to cut out gluten, and yet more will tell you to fast for several hours. But if you don’t listen to your body but instead listen to advice from those around you, you will land up with bigger problems! My two cents: try to stay in tune with your body and for the most part, you should be fine. In addition, take baby steps towards a fitness regimen to build physical strength.

Prescriptions are not enough though. Only you can endeavour to go inward and get in sync with your higher self. Cancer gave me a fortuitous opportunity to connect with my soul and this was the only reason I was able to cope with reasonable ease. As we all know, cancer has a deep sense of fear and insecurity attached to it. This has been created by us, and if you remove the ‘us’ and ‘I’ from the dynamics, you are left with your soul, which has no particular identity, form, shape, name, reputation, and is pure.

As part of the healing process, I let my thoughts drift from childhood memories to college days, early days at work and the more recent turbulent times. I packed up my emotional baggage and decided to delve deep within. Knowing that nothing can scar my soul and each experience can only make it richer, I thought beyond the transient, and understood the physical scars, baldness, illness and fatigue were temporary at best. And also, thanks to modern medicine and creative hairdressers, surmountable. This knowledge and wisdom only comes to you if you are in harmony with the universe. Meditating and shutting out the clutter helps you attain this calm.

In the end, I will say one thing – fighting cancer is a mental game. If you are able to realign your thinking while managing symptoms sensibly, you will find cancer can be a much-needed force in your life. I, therefore, did not always see the dreaded ailment as a setback, but as an opportunity to rationalise my mind, and upgrade myself to version 2.0 – having left static Siri behind!

The writer is a third-stage breast cancer survivor who continued to work and shoulder her responsibilities despite all odds

From HT Brunch, August 4, 2019

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