Time and again, I have been told by people how strong I am and how I should narrate my story. But I believe I am neither strong nor do I have a compelling story to tell. I think I was just lucky to come across a test and know how it feels when tough times tide over.
I believe I draw a great deal of my present capacity to deal with things in life from the virtue of my passion – journalism. I always wanted to be a journalist and having reported from conflict areas, whether Kashmir or Dantewada, has endowed me with a deep resilience to fight back.
So, when I was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma – cancer of white blood cells quite uncommon in India – I somehow managed to stay calm and ask my doctor, “Okay, so what is the next step?” What I could not possibly delineate was the inner turmoil – I had celebrated my 22nd birthday just two weeks ago and here I received the crudest birthday present.
I have always liked to believe I am detached and cold – a trait I am not proud of but the one that prevented me from collapsing before my loved ones. In the two years of my illness, I have broken down exactly once when I saw my father, the strongest man break down and shed tears.
As I lay in my hospital bed that night, the city lights twinkling outside, I had absolutely no idea what was to happen. A foreigner had entered my body without my permission and was now eating away my system. To make matters worse, the malignant tumor sat right on top of my heart, encompassing the veins that supplied blood to my heart. And then in that moment of silence, I told myself I would fight this thing out. No matter what it took, this was war and I was ready.
Fortunately, I had an able army supporting me. Maa, my pillar of strength, surprised me with her determination. My father and brother, who were the subjects of my harshest behaviour and yet never left my side, doing every single thing to make me comfortable, Masi – I have no words to describe what she did for me but I think most importantly, she touched my soul. My grandparents stood by me in every sense of the word, friends, colleagues, doctors- without whom this journey could never be complete.
Blessings and prayers poured in from every nook and corner. I marvelled at the thought of how one person could be so much cared for, I felt lucky and extremely special. In fact I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who were by my side.
Chemotherapy commenced. One of the best things about the chemo therapies were awesome hot and young doctors. AIIMS hospital was full of eye candies and I had a ball time checking them out. One good thing about being a patient is that cute doctors are bound to smile at you and make small talk.
The hair started to go. I vividly remember one morning when I noticed a big black insect on my pillow. When I rubbed my eyes to have a clearer look, I realized it was a lump of my hair. I ran my hand through my hair and in no time, I was half bald. I lost more hair in the days that came and by the end of the week my head had big bald patches.
The decision to shave off my head was my very own. I did it myself. Went to my favourite salon with my childhood friend Monika and told the stylist to ‘chop them all’. Monika gave him a knowing look, the guy had handled our hair since we were in school. I still remember looking at the person in the mirror after the haircut and thinking I did not recognize her.
I don’t know what my family felt about my baldness but none of them reacted after we returned from the salon.
It was a period of mixed emotions. Some days, I would be low feeling the patches and scars of chemotherapy – the dull face, bald head, the physical weakness cancer brings. Sometimes, the pain would be so immense that I thought snakes were biting me all over. The other times, I would lay awake the entire night unable to tell my family that my body hurt, really hurt. But every morning I would get up and eat, and put on my beautiful clothes and earrings and head to office.
I had insisted on working during my treatment and my doctor agreed. He was firm that I had to be occupied to recover fully.
My decision to resume work did not work in my favor. Despite the full support of my colleagues and the organization, I insisted on working like before. I was a reporter and could not bear sitting in a fully air conditioned office, and return home in the evening unappeased. I was irritated and frustrated beyond measure.
Life knocked beautifully on my door when I had to leave for Greece for a conference. I went post the 11th chemo session though my body was still under treatment; I believe Greece nurtured my soul.
I returned home after a week, undertook my last chemo therapy, my radiation-therapy and I were done. Or so I thought.
I was declared cancer-free on my 23rd birthday by Dr. Lalit Kumar who is known as the Father of medical oncology in India.
Overjoyed, I headed to work. The December 16 Delhi gang rape trial had just begun and I had to cover it. Life seemed normal.
The only thing worse than cancer, is a cancer relapse. Three months later, I was diagnosed with a relapse, this time at Stage 3 which is much more aggressive.
I must admit my ego was hurt. Just when I thought I battled cancer or as my friends quoted, “She kicked Cancer’s ass,” it returned. The basic rule in a war is to never underestimate the enemy.
Honest to God, I didn’t know if I would ever win the battle but I knew I wasn’t a quitter, and wanted to die while fighting.
Just when we were considering the option to fly out of the country, somebody suggested of the Tata Memorial Cancer hospital in Mumbai.
I remember taking only two sets of clothes with me then as I believed we would take one meeting, return and contemplate. But one meeting with Dr.Naveen Khattry who happened to be my previous doctor’s student, changed the way I looked at things.
He was one hell of an arrogant, intelligent and determined doctor, I could not help but feel confident about him. He refused on treating me, for his rural patients would have been neglected. I pleaded. He gave me one look and I was admitted.
Nine months in another city, I was away from work and everyone I knew. I decided to be patient and allow my doctors to do their work.
I focused on nothing but my happiness. My hospital was in the lap of mountains. Foothills of Western Ghats, lush greened by Mumbai monsoon, surrounded us on all sides. I would spend hours gazing at the hills. I’d devote my time to reading, planning fictitious weddings of my cousins who were years away from getting married, watching movies, watching YouTube tutorials on how to style my hair , speaking to friends, making friends with the orderlies and other staff members at the hospital and laughing my heart out.
I’d often sit and pan out my future at work. Constant encouragement from my grandfather made me take up Terracotta painting that led to the creation of some very beautiful pieces.
The second line of Chemotherapy is much worse than the former therapy I underwent before, along with an addition of an autologous bone marrow transplant this time.
Post the chemotherapy tornado, I was good to go. I went back to work and led a healthy life.
This two-year journey has been one of the most important periods of my life. One, it showed that life is the best teacher. It teaches you till you actually learn your lessons. Life wanted me to be happy – something I did not learn during my first stint with cancer. So, it gave me cancer again. So that I could learn to be happy, to laugh at myself, to accept my circumstances and not be too affected by them, to let go.
Two, it showed me my own strength of character. I know what I am capable of dealing with.
Three, it told me which relationships were my own and which weren’t. I know now that family and friends are perhaps the biggest blessings one may have. The man I loved and whom I thought had loved me back decided to leave in the middle of my treatment, walking out of a 3-year old relationship because he could not deal with the stress of an illness. It hurt then. But I realize that people who are your own, people who were always mine never walked away. It taught me to accept, some people are lessons that one needs to learn from, dust away the baggage, and move ahead.
And lastly, it showed me what will is capable of. The will of one’s heart, the passion to do something in life, the will of prayers that can put you in that select group of lucky ones when survival rates of a treatment are touted to be less than 10 %. Will makes a man.