The easy way and perhaps the only way to deal with cancer is with a positive attitude and a sense of humour. Both these qualities are imperative for a speedy recovery. I know it is easier said than done. Everyone has their own way of tackling this issue. One may wonder in what capacity or authority I make these comments. I am a “cancer survivor “ as they say … how I hate that phrase! I believe that cancer is like any other health issue be it a heart attack, diabetes etc. Do we say “I am a heart attack survivor “? We say “ I have a heart problem “ or “ I have a sugar problem “ in the case of diabetes. So why don’t we just say I have a cancer issue … the word survivor sounds ominous.
I was diagnosed with the big C on 07 February 2011. The gastroenterologist(a soft-spoken, shy but extremely competent doctor ) was very reluctant to give me the news as I was alone. But I convinced him that I could confront any news bravely. From our childhood and having lost my father at a young age, we learnt how to handle any crisis head-on. You may ask why my husband was not with me when I visited the doctor. Honestly, it was easier for me to handle this news rather than to deal with my husband once he heard of the problem.
For a whole week, I did not share this news with anyone as I had to attend some family functions in my city, Hyderabad. My mother and other family members were also coming from Chennai for this purpose. Once the family had gathered around I broke the news to them as the date for my surgery had been slated for 21 February 2011 about a week away… My wise mother who initially broke down on hearing the news told me “ you have no choice now, you have it, you have to face it “. My husband was a wreck and my two sons who live overseas were devastated and torn between wanting to be with me and dealing with their careers. But I think my handling of the situation made it easier for everyone. The people who suffer most are your loved ones as they cannot accept the fact that you have a medical problem. I, therefore, started sending them frequent emails to update them on the status of my health. I did not want them to come while I was in the hospital as I wanted to spend meaningful time with them when they did.
Apart from the qualities listed at the start one requires to have implicit faith in their doctors. I never questioned or harassed them with doubts and fears. I also told my husband (who though not a doctor is very knowledgeable about the pharmacology of any medicine )not to try and enlighten me on the possible side effects. I did not go to “ the know it all Mr/Ms Google “. I was in the good hands of my doctors and I knew I was safe.
I recall some funny situations (at least according to me) during this period. I would regale the family with stories of my hospital visits, my cancer treatment, incidents at the hospital …all in phone conversations or emails. This lightened the atmosphere tremendously and put the family at ease. Some of these I am penning down here.
The first incident was when I went to the surgeon with my dear friend who is a well known, unassuming and wonderful pathologist. She was a tremendous support to me during this phase. The surgeon( a brilliant and extremely dedicated humble human being ) was explaining to me about what the surgery entailed. He also spoke of the possibility of a colostomy(use of a bag for the discharge of waste matter from the body ). I jokingly asked him if those bags came in different colours to match my sarees. I was then working in a travel agency and loved to colour coordinate my dressing. The poor man was shocked and must have concluded that the news of my cancer had affected my brain. My friend hastened to tell him that I had a weird sense of humour.
After the surgery and before I was discharged, the time came to remove the dressing I saw the long surgical cut with all the staples. I remember feeling like one of those superheroes character………… metallic woman or if there is no such person….. there was now :-).
During the radiation sessions which went on for 5 continuous weeks, I obviously saw many patients on a daily basis. One gentleman asked my friend “ what is wrong with her? She does not look sick. She is so active and cheerful! “ His wife was there to undergo treatment. She looked very depressed and was uncommunicative. He later asked me if I could talk to his wife and give her courage. This I did and told her that if we are not positive we would be making the lives of our loved ones a living hell. Bad enough that we have an issue but it is not fair to torment or punish the family in the process. I wonder if it made a difference to her … I sincerely hope it did. On my next visit to my oncologist (a genius in her field, who empathized with you and made it seem as if the big C is a simple problem ) I asked her if I should dress soberly, be glum and be an introvert as that is what people expect of a cancer patient. She said ‘ if that were to happen … it would not be you but someone else .” She was very insistent that I go back to work 4 weeks after my surgery. Of course, I would take time off for my chemo and work half a day during the radiation course. This was the best advice ever and I would recommend anyone going through this problem to do so as well. The knack is to keep the mind occupied and be physically active.
One day when I returned home from my last radiation session I ran into a neighbour who told me that I looked radiant. I quipped “ I better be, especially after the 28 sessions of radiation I have just been through“.
My 5-year-old grand-niece who was visiting me that year from Australia was very upset that I had not gone to receive them at the airport. Her parents told her I was unwell and that she would see me at home. I went down to the parking lot to welcome them when they arrived and the little one remarked “ She should have come to the airport. She looks fine to me and look… she is even wearing lipstick “. We had a good laugh at her reaction
While sending the health bulletins and updates on a regular basis to all my near and dear I did give them the option to “ unsubscribe “ from the mailing list if they so desired. They laughed at my suggestion and said they would never do that as they found the updates reassuring and humorous.
I can vividly recall the one and only time I broke down in the privacy of my bathroom as I felt I had not spent enough time with my then one-year-old grandson… the apple of my eye! I am so grateful that I have time to spend with him now. But yes I also did have issues of tremendous nausea, pain, diarrhoea, constipation, throwing up etc. But I chose to be positive and enjoy the love and affection being showered on me. I used to marvel at the support that was offered to me by everyone … what more can one ask for?
I am a fighter as most of my family members and friends know. Perhaps some would even label me as stubborn !! This article is not meant to praise me or dismiss anyone’s fears and issues as trivial. But having experienced the whole gamut of tests, surgery, chemos and radiation I can confidently say that it was these traits that saw me through, what one would consider, a time of turmoil and stress. Of course, I could not have been as positive if it were not for the unstinting support of my immediate and extended family. I was extremely fortunate in having my physician(an outstanding, sensible and experienced doctor ), gastroenterologist, pathologist, surgeon, oncologist and radiologist (another dedicated and friendly doctor )guide me at every stage of my treatment. I am grateful to my parents for instilling in us the strength to deal with such situations. I am thankful to the management of the travel agency I worked for 37 long years who permitted me to work from home on the days I was unwell but at the same time, they refused to accept my offer to quit my job.
I would like to conclude with some statements that have made a deep impact on me and my journey through this period. The first one is attributed to Dr Shantha of the Cancer Hospital in Chennai.
1) Fear the fear and not the Cancer .
2) Cancer is a word not a sentence.
3) My body has Cancer but I am fine
It’s been nearly a decade since the initial diagnosis and here now I am, continuing with positivity, with compassion for people, and with a zest for a life of fun and travel !!