This article is contributed by Sunita Shah. Sunita is a lawyer by profession and is now focusing on consulting for Wellness & Well-being with an emphasis on breast cancer patients. Sunita was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in August 2012, and underwent Chemotherapy and radiation. Post completion of treatment Sunita ran the Mumbai Marathon in 2014 and has continued participating in marathons since then.
I was diagnosed with the Big C in August 2012, in a routine check-up. I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was living my dream- I had just joined a US law firm as its consultant in India- with an enviable dollar compensation; was posted to Bengaluru a city I liked; was travelling on work and meeting interesting people and the cherry to top it all was finally meeting a person who I thought I would ultimately settle down with! This dream came crashing down like a pack of cards on 16th August 2012! Post a routine medical check-up, I got a call from the gynaecologist to come in the following day for the FNAC test. She informed me that in the course of the physical examination, a small lump had been discovered under the armpit. This had been confirmed by the mammogram. The FNAC tests were being done to confirm whether it was malignant or benign. Although apprehensive and uneasy, I hoped that this was a false alarm and it would blow away. That was not to be as the results were positive. I was shocked and felt my world was crashing down. Not only would I have to give up my work that I truly enjoyed and return home, there was the surgery looming ahead and the numerous side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, [ hair fall being the least of my concerns]/ I was uncertain of the extent of recovery; the future looked uncertain and everything looked nebulous.
After the initial shock wore off my approach was to treat it in matter of fact or a clinical manner. I promised myself that everything I did would be detached and that I would take this ‘issue’ like a knock on the chin! I decided to take my life as it comes living happily one day at a time and without any worries of the future. I changed my approach to life! All the planning and dreaming of goals, the travelling, friends etc. was dumped in favour of a pragmatic and practical approach to tasks at hand. To give you an example, hair fall is expected in the first chemo cycle but prior to commencing my first chemo I cut my hair in a short but attractive hair style and got a wig made identical to my new hairstyle with a similar cut, colour and texture. To most people it appeared to be a ‘new’ me! After getting used to short hair I shaved my head and started wearing the new wig.
A key highlight of my journey was that in addition to my family members who would be my primary caregivers, I had the guidance of my childhood friend Dr Indu Tiwari whom I trusted implicitly and looked up to. Indu took charge of not just my medical needs but more importantly my emotional well-being. As care giver, Indu acted as a liaison between me and my Doctors and helped navigate through opinions of various medical professionals and focus on decision-making. This support helped in reducing my fears and anxiety whilst ensuring my compliance as a patient and resulted in successful medical treatment. Creating and maintaining a detailed log went a long way. As a caregiver, it was her duty to supervise and determine the nutritional intake viz. plan and chart out healthy yet tasty meals.
Ensuring appropriate medical treatment is only one part of the battle; the other part is the associated emotional and mental well-being and a strong positive attitude. Unstinting support, care, love and affection of family, close friends, who empathise rather than sympathise, are critical components for a successful recovery. Keeping ones spirits up continuously despite side effects of chemotherapy can be quite a challenge; but regular doses of Tom & Jerry or “You got mail” ensured a good laugh and feel good effect. Adhering to a daily routine in eating, sleeping, meditation and spirituality is very essential as also a continuous stream of good friends which is the best antidote to any ailment. And the best, whether you are young or young at heart, is to get an admirer! My Angels who became my special care givers of all my emotional needs were my school friend Vispi & Vivek! Not a week went by when I was not indulged by treats of specially made food, outings to movies, plays, comedy, theatre, albeit with the precaution of wearing the mouth mask. All outings were filled with anecdotes, outrageous jokes-riots of laughter fun times which left a warm fuzzy feeling! The affectionate hugs were the most comforting.
A critical element of my journey was my Vipassana sojourn. Post Chemotherapy and against medical advice, I went for a 4 days vipassana refresher retreat to Igatpuri. It was significantly THE most defining moment of my treatment and consequently my life. The learnings imbibed from the lectures including understanding of the ever changing and impermanent nature of all things, the mindful breathing and consequent introspection paved the way for an emotional detox.
In all this, I continued my daily routine in much the same way as I had been following over years- albeit with some precautions and changes.
I still went for my daily yoga classes – but with the mask covering my lower face- doing a different set of asanas, and at a safe distance from the rest of the class. I attended work but for limited hours with concessions of rest in the afternoon and an early let off at the end of the day. I met up with friends in parks and open places. I went shopping for a new wardrobe of clothes -bright happy colours which showed off my ‘new leanness’ and numerous stylish and elegant hats to cover my baldness. My days were planned with care – to include a certain amount of TV, mood lifting music, filtering visitors by allowing only cheerful and positive ones near me. Evenings were spent at a nearby park or Club in an open air atmosphere. This ensured that in addition to fresh air, I was not cut off from reality or life.
As a family, we believe that in order to heal from any ailment – you have to deal with a patient holistically; in addition to taking medical treatment at the hospitals, equally critical is exploring alternative medicines (to deal with the side effects of the treatment), emotional support of friends and family as well as hygiene and sensitization issues. On hindsight, my brief liaison with Mr C – was in no way unpleasant! Were I to do an impact analysis- I confess that the most significant change was that it was a reality check. I learnt to see, accept and embrace life as it is – without any recriminations or regrets of the past nor building any hopes and dreams for the future. I commenced on the path of equanimity – balancing the peaks and troughs by living and being in the present moment, becoming more aware of each thought word deed and action of mine. There was an element of mindfulness to everything which positively impacted my relationships. My empathetic side became more pronounced and I became less judgemental but more ‘accepting’ people situations for what they are. I became open to ‘letting go’ of people, things or situations that were negative or not contributing to my life. I woke up every morning filled with gratitude for all that I had instead of moaning for what I lacked. In all of this I inculcated a positive drive, determination to fight against all odds and ‘a can do and will do’ attitude; of looking at all situations as part of a bigger picture. These were the lessons imbibed in me since childhood which made THE difference.
My sincere advice to fellow travellers- you have two choices when faced with an impossible challenge. These are Give up or Gear up. I chose Gear up and so can you. I followed a path of looking forward and not looking back. I believe that what everybody else thinks as a setback has the potential to become the milestone of your life. When you encounter any stumbling block challenge the expected; explore and reimagine the possibilities and you will discover a whole new perspective of looking at things differently, just as I did. Most importantly, show yourself as the individual who can reimagine what’s possible.