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Fighting Cancer: Part II

Posted: September 14, 2015

“Eclectic, interesting…will fill you with hope and resolve!” – Pick up our new short story collection, Women.Mutiny

Brave, moving and shocking all at once, Tanvi Ahuja writes an account of her astonishing battle with cancer. Read the first part of this account here.

“Dad has been a rock so far. Mom will come around to accepting things sooner or later. Didi is more of a friend and my idol. And V, my strength. My only regret is of seeing people close to me in pain and being forced to put their lives on hold for me.”

As I read these lines today from the first part of my account of my cancer battle, I get all teary-eyed. It’s been months since I wrote about my journey of finding out I had the big C. It’s been three months since I finished my radio and chemotherapy. It’s been a month and a half since I started working again. And it’s been less than a month since I got married! I am amazed at how far I have come.

Back in May, the 30 radiation and six chemotherapy sessions had sucked the life out of me. The early side effects were very benign. A little nausea here, a little skin discolouration there. Week 4 onwards, however, life was only about waking up from an unsound sleep, waiting in line for radiotherapy, and getting blood tests done to see if my body could take another chemo. By week 5, I had stopped eating and drinking. I had lost 10 kgs in three weeks and along with it the energy to stand straight or do mundane tasks. I turned to books to distract myself but could not concentrate while reading. I would watch TV but nothing registered in my brain.

Then came the final week of treatment. I remember lying awake one morning in the one-room guest house my parents had rented to be close to the hospital. Like before, I had not slept that night either. I started talking to myself. “You have two options, Tanvi. Either you give up and don’t eat or drink, forcing the doctor to put you on a feeding tube. Or you gather all of your remaining strength, and power through this last week, one day at a time.”

I chose the second option- for myself and for my parents. In the beginning of the treatment, my radiation doctor had thrown the word “Stage 4” around in our meetings as if we were having a casual conversation over coffee. It broke me. But only for a day. Because when I saw my dad cry for the first time, I knew that I had to be the strongest I had ever been in life. Not because he is a man and men don’t or can’t cry. But because he is a man who keeps his emotions to himself and is one of the most balanced people I know. That day I knew that I was precious to my parents. While they gave their all for me, they asked only for my patience, faith, and compliance with the treatment in return.

I started talking to myself. “You have two options, Tanvi. Either you give up and don’t eat or drink, forcing the doctor to put you on a feeding tube. Or you gather all of your remaining strength, and power through this last week, one day at a time.”

The worst, though, was yet to come.

Indian doctors, or at least the doctors in my case, didn’t tell me or prepare me for what awaited me after my treatment. Fellow patients told me that doctors usually keep the patients in the dark so that we do not get scared and refuse treatment. Whatever the case may be, the ten days after my last chemo were like living hell. Puking blood every morning, the ulcers, the pain, the sleepless nights. I had all but lost the will to live.

And then, things started improving. I read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and while a lot of it sounded hokum to me, the one thing that stuck with me was that positive thoughts attracted more positiveness. And I really, REALLY needed some positiveness in life. So my agnostic self tried to be spiritual and every day, multiple times a day, I reminded myself that I was alive, that I was healing, that I was already getting better, and that nothing, not even cancer, could break me. And so the bleeding stopped, the puking reduced, and slowly but surely I moved from liquids to semi-solids to solid food. I even went to Panchgani, with my awesome parents in tow, to attend a human rights conference. Soon, I was back in office, excited to see my old colleagues and the piled-up work. And then I married V. Those two beautiful days with friends and family, with a small gurudwara ceremony are still fresh as daisies in my mind.

People tell me how strong I have been. But very few know and understand that I have had to dig deep inside, very deep, into that elusive but very-much-there well of human strength, determination, and never-say-die attitude, so unlike my earlier pessimistic self. And even then, there are days when I suddenly catch myself breathing really hard, worrying about my next follow-up, about the long-distance marriage and V and my future, and at first repressing, but then facing the haunting memories and the doubt of a relapse. But life goes on, doesn’t it? Life. Goes. On. And it will be an understatement to say that I am grateful for a second chance.

People tell me how strong I have been. But very few know and understand that I have had to dig deep inside, very deep, into that elusive but very-much-there well of human strength, determination, and never-say-die attitude, so unlike my earlier pessimistic self.

To my fellow cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers- you are not alone. Literally, 1 in 8 Indians suffers from some form of cancer (as per statistics from the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute) and very few have the means to fight it. But as much as cancer is one freak cell going crazy, it has today very much become a lifestyle disease. I read this recent interview by Siddhartha Mukherjee who authored The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, where he was asked if a positive mental attitude could cure cancer. His answer was apt. He said, “No, I think it’s not true. It’s not true. In a spiritual sense, a positive attitude may help you get through chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and what have you. But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer – any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer.” He maybe right. And it is a disservice to be preachy and tell a person with cancer (like so many told me) that she has to stay strong and positive or she won’t get better. But happiness is sometimes a choice. And it is up to us to decide if we want to spend our remaining days in misery and fear, or with hope and gumption.

At the end of the day, you and I are not defined by our cancer. It is but one part of our lives. Cancer is tough. But we are tougher. Amen.

Social Worker. Feminist. Romantic. Foodie.

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