Cancer scares people, and they get uncomfortable. Cancer is a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But the truth is, cancer has been both my enemy and my friend. I lost my mother to cancer whereas I survived an advanced stage 3B (triple-negative) breast cancer at the age of 32. This is my story.
I was no stranger to cancer, it had touched my family earlier when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. She was treated and getting on with her life when cancer reared its head again in January 2006, this time more aggressive, attacking her liver, lungs, and brain. I saw her in pain and suffering.
Being her only child, she could never share her pain or problems with me. She wouldn’t accept the recurrence of the disease and slowly gave up the will to fight any further. She battled cancer for 4 years but eventually, we lost her to the disease at 55 years of age in 2007.
Cancer came knocking at my door
It was April 2013 – I was just 32 then, I was accidentally hit on my left breast while walking on a busy Delhi street which I thought would heal on its own. However, the pain persisted even after a week and I realized it was time to consult a doctor.
I underwent a breast ultrasound, FNAC (a diagnostic procedure used to investigate lumps or masses under the skin) and biopsy, and the reports came positive for breast cancer at stage 3B (triple negative). Cancer was in an advanced stage and had occupied more than half of the left breast. Triple negative is a variant of breast cancer that has a tendency to spread faster to other organs. It also does not respond to hormonal tablets and was in most likelihood ‘inherited’.
My worst fear had now turned into a bitter reality. I thought my life was slipping out of my hands. “Why me?” this question kept bothering me for a long while. A strange anger was bubbling inside me. I was worried about my life but more so for my daughter. She was only twelve years old at that time.
I took a vow to fight it head on!
It was difficult but I had to accept it. Only by accepting, I was able to move on from there, making myself physically and mentally strong to fight the disease and face the side-effects of the treatment.
When you lean into the opening that a cancer diagnosis creates, you may quickly realize that all you have is the present moment. Being strong was my only choice. I imbibed this never-give-up fighter’s spirit from my mother. Giving up was never an option for me. I was determined to fight the disease. The support and understanding of my family and friends motivated me to give cancer a tough fight.
The treatment phase…
I underwent 6 cycles of neoadjuvant chemotherapy followed by 25 sessions of radiation. I also had to undergo mastectomy (surgical removal of a breast) of the affected breast. After my first chemotherapy, the pain was unbearable and it made me think of my mother and her suffering. I knew what I didn’t have to do. In a way, my mother’s situation taught me at least that.
I began to understand the changes my body was going through and prepared myself for each round of the treatment. Hair fall and mastectomy were really difficult to live with as it affected my self-confidence. I started welcoming advice and tips from friends and family and incorporated them the best I could. A positive attitude kept me going in those difficult days.
Altering diet and lifestyle was the key
The second of the planned six chemo-therapy sessions had a critical impact on my approach towards cancer. Lab tests clearly showed that the cancer was spreading and damaging my other organs. I had to protect my body. I decided that day that I would change my eating and sleeping habits. I started researching about holistic therapy.
As with other chronic diseases, a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition are the key ingredients to fight cancer too. Lifestyle and environmental factors can play major roles in cancer development. Specific whole-person wellness and lifestyle strategies are key to help reduce cancer risk.
For the first time in my life, I drank beetroot juice. I had more than 50 questions for my doctors — from how to protect my nails to details on nutrition. They told me to switch off the internet. But I told them this approach was working.
Milk thistle (a flowering herb used to detox the liver), green apple juice (used at the Israel government cancer institute), and salads became a part of my new diet. My doctors started observing the change soon.
If there is one learning that I could draw from my painful journey is that if you have to fight cancer, prevention is everything!
Recovery wasn’t the final solution
By the end of my six chemo sessions, I had responded to the treatment. The tests showed that the disease had gone by 90 percent.
After the chemotherapy, I take pride in the fact that the doctors asked me for advice. They said “You should share and talk about the lifestyle changes you made in your life with other patients.”
But, the probability of cancer striking back is always there, even after you have gone through the complete treatment and survived while taking care of your lifestyle and diet. One can never be sure even after doing everything right that it would come back or not. Often people live under this fear and stop being themselves. In fact, I had a similar fear which I tried to suppress but it still is there.
Three years later, I underwent a genetic test in 2016 which determines the possibilities of cancer coming back, based on your genes and family history. I was tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. BRCA1 is a human tumour suppressor gene which on mutation, increases the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer substantially.
As per the test results, I have an 80% risk of breast cancer recurrence and a 40% risk of getting ovarian cancer. Also, there is a 50% chance that it can pass on to my daughter. My doctor advised me to go for preventive prophylactic mastectomy (which cuts down the risk of breast cancer recurrence by 85-90%) of the right breast and eventually the removal of my ovaries once I attain menopause. Honestly, this cleared my head and I started valuing life more. I started focusing on things that really mattered to me and it gave a purpose to my life.
The Seed was sown for Cheers To Life!
Cancer made me realise that though my near and dear ones were supportive and encouraging, they could not relate to my suffering and this led me to seek out others suffering similarly. So I started meeting patients of all age groups. I started counselling them and I learned a lot from the survivors. While I was going through my cancer treatment, an idea started forming in my head. The idea for a platform for all cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, doctors, to come together, to talk, to support, to encourage and inspire.
Hence, I started talking to people; other cancer survivors, oncologists, dermatologists, holistic therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists and so on. This gave birth to my non-profit organisation called Cheers to Life Foundation.
It is a platform for anyone to ask and get answers, to initiate discussions, to be a part of like-minded people who believe (like me) that cancer need not take away one’s will to live! Our mission is to make people aware of the various aspects of the disease, provide them with information about the treatments available, and other supportive therapies. We believe in “OVERCOMING CANCER – CELEBRATING LIFE”.
Cancer can’t defeat you!
I wanted to feel good and look good (although some may call it vanity). Just because I was going through a painful phase did not mean that I needed to look it! I also got a tattoo done on my right wrist. A blue angel, with a pink cancer ribbon bow. From the bow, wings emerge and birds fly out. The feathers are the experiences from my encounter with cancer. And my wings are growing; and the birds are flying. I wanted the tattoo to be soft and yet powerful and expressive. That is me.
To all the cancer fighters and caregivers, I would say this: Equip yourself with the right knowledge because that is your biggest weapon in the fight against cancer.
Overall, I believe that difficult times must be seen as an opportunity to transform. Motivation and a commitment to change can create significant improvements. What is important is to learn as much as possible about what you can do to protect yourself on a daily basis. Remember to stay positive and live life to the fullest!