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Shruti Sharma Anand and Neeti Leekha Chhabra prefer to be called Breast Cancer winners, and are the force behind Yes to life, an initiative for helping those whose lives this cancer has touched.
“It is surprising to know that in the country that created the Kamasutra, everyone considers sex to be such a taboo that no one wants to talk about anything even remotely related to sex, even if it’s an important organ like the breast which gives life to a new baby. Somehow, breasts are only seen as a sexual organ. We have come across women who have never stood in front of a mirror to look at their breasts, let alone feel them. We tried to get them to do a self-screening, and it was a sight to watch with everyone blushing and giggling. Incidents like these give us all the more reason to help women rise above the shyness, and ask us all the questions coming to their mind,” says Shruti Sharma Anand, a breast cancer winner and part of a beautiful initiative helping Breast Cancer warriors, Yes To Life.
Today, Breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer of women in India. With the average age of incidence shifting from 50 years to 30 years, younger women are succumbing to breast cancer more and more. The Indian Council of Medical Research finds that India is likely to have more than 17.3 lakh new cases of breast cancer and over 8.8 lakh deaths due to the disease by 2020.
While the reasons attributed are many, and vary from lifestyle, faulty genes, to late motherhood, and more, yet specialists advocate and data supports that early detection and prevention can help fight this disease and take care of the mortality rates. There is a dire need to initiate as well as engage in conversations from awareness to detection to diagnosis, as well as counselling to treatment, and beyond.
October happens to be the Breast Cancer Awareness month. And I bring you here a story of two young Breast Cancer winners. I would rather call them champions or winners, instead of survivors; kudos to their exemplary courage, determination, as well as a never say die spirit, which needs to be shared so that it can inspire others…
It was sometime in May this year when on a weekend visit to Select City Walk (a south Delhi mall), I had come across a very unique and beautiful photo exhibition. Called 15 Frames of Courage – a photo Exhibition of Cancer Warriors Celebrating Life, it showcased 15 picture posters of cancer warriors, with positive and inspiring messages from their experience. Two young women stood there, reaching out and talking to many curious visitors; tirelessly trying to spread awareness about breast cancer, its detection, myths, and awareness.
Meet Neeti Leekha Chhabra and Shruti Sharma Anand, two young women who were detected with Breast Cancer at a very young age of 31, and who just refused to bow down to this deadly disease, and embraced all the challenges saying YES to Life.
Both Neeti and Shruti were diagnosed with Breast Cancer at a very young age of 31. While Neeti was working as an Associate professor at a management college in Delhi and had just enrolled for her Ph.D. program, Shruti was at a senior leadership position in one of India’s top private banks. Neeti had a son who was 3 years old, while Shruti and her husband were on the verge of taking the next step towards planning a family. Personally and professionally, everything was happy and settled.
Neeti shares, “It was 2012. One day while taking a bath, I had felt a lump in my breast. I spoke to my sister about it and thought it could be related to my menstrual cycle. Two months on when the lump didn’t disappear, I consulted a doctor. The doctor said the lump seemed benign but still wanted to do a Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology (FNAC) to confirm the nature of the tumor. I gave a sample for FNAC, almost convinced that it was just a formality since the doctor did feel it was benign. I remember, that day my husband Sumit and I had gone out for dinner and a movie… But the next day, when the report came, it was a lump with Stage 1 cancer.”
With Shruti, the detection happened while on a visit to the doctor after her first pregnancy failed and the doctor advised a complete checkup before trying to conceive again. It was during one of the routine ultrasounds that she was diagnosed with a Stage 1 lump in her breast. Initially what was planned to be a surgery to remove the lump turned into mastectomy due to other detected lumps.
Shruti with her family
“I was 31 years old, at a comfortable point in my career and planning for a family, when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. The news (when I heard it for the first time) was like a big blow since before this I had lived a very planned life and now I could see all my plans going for a toss. But I told myself everything would be fine, and asked the doctor to go ahead with the surgery”, says Shruti.
Just three days after the surgery, shares Shruti, she put the drain pipes which were clamped to her sides to flush out body fluids in a sling bag, and went shopping. “I wanted to buy a light brown eye lens desperately,” she says. “I didn’t want to postpone things I wanted to do. In a few weeks, it was time for chemotherapy. I shaved off my hair instead of letting chemo claim it clump by clump.”
For Neeti, it was more difficult being a mother to a three-year-old. The fear that you may not be there tomorrow for your child is the biggest for any mother. In such testing times, it is only the positivity and trust which holds you together.
Says Neeti, “My faith in God actually helped me to steer through the whole process. Had it not been for my faith in the Supreme, the whole process would have been so difficult. I always knew that I would be fine, and that this was just a phase, but the only time I felt scared was when I thought: what if I am not able to see my son grow up? And that thought actually gave me a lot of courage because I knew that I couldn’t let this happen.”
A lot of your strength during these testing times comes from the support of family and friends around you and the little things they do. Says Shruti, “When I got my head shaved and came out of the place, Pankaj (Shruti’s husband) said, ‘You look beautiful’. I reached home and my nephew Pratyush (who was 6 then) went out telling his friends that his Masi is smart enough to go bald.
My sister shaved her head off to support me, and my mom-in-law who had long flowing hair donated her long tresses in Tirupathi Balaji to get me my life back…I can’t thank God enough for surrounding me with such beautiful souls.”
Neeti adds, “My husband, parents, and in-laws were completely supportive. Even my 3 year old behaved so maturely during that time. He would not ask me to play with him and for the first time ever I saw him say a formal prayer. Standing in front of Shiv Ji’s murti, he prayed that ‘Bhagwanji, meri mumma ko jaldi se theek kar do, unko mere saath khila do’ (God, please make my mumma better soon, so that she can play with me)’.
Neeti with her family
My husband didn’t go to work for a month during the whole investigation and start of the treatment phase. He and my dad were there with me during all chemotherapy sessions.”
No, you cannot stay away from negativity completely, but a lot of it actually can be managed.
As Neeti shares, “I had told both my parents and in-laws, that I don’t want to meet people who come and say ‘oho kya ho gaya?’ (Oh, what has happened?) as that’s just showing off to be concerned but isn’t actually being concerned. So, all relatives and neighbors whom we thought would be talking negatively, were diplomatically asked not to come.”
Also isn’t it true that the less you respond to negativity, the more peaceful your life becomes? Adds Neeti when I ask her about her experiences during treatment, “I hardly wore a wig – maybe once or twice – and would even go out without having my head covered at all when I was bald. I realized that if you are not conscious about how you look, people actually don’t look at you, and it’s for you to ignore those who do comment.”
Shruti during treatment
Shruti adds, “Times like these help one find those few who should really matter in life. It is these people who should be kept close, and all your efforts should be towards these few. Rest all just don’t matter, they should ideally be kept away or at least at a safe distance (emotionally). I did come across some who were very dramatic and even negative, but most of the people were truly concerned. I was not just a person going on with my life, but someone who people wanted to be around them. Honestly, it made me feel special and blessed.”
Shruti & Neeti with Shruti’s daughter
Neeti was introduced to Shruti by her oncologist surgeon Dr (Mrs) Ramesh Sarin at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, Delhi. Says Neeti, “This difficult journey has also given me friends which I would be always thankful to God for. Shruti is one of them. When I first met Shruti she was undergoing the second cycle of chemotherapy. Our doctor had introduced her to me as a ‘girl my age’ who was undergoing treatment for a similar condition. When I saw her in the hospital, she was undergoing chemo. She was looking absolutely normal. She made space for me to sit on her bed. She was chatting and laughing as if nothing had happened to her. Her positivity was contagious.”
They soon became friends and in 2014, Neeti founded Yes to Life and got it registered the same year. Shruti joined her as the Vice President of the organization.
Says Neeti, “I have been very lucky that I got diagnosed at an early stage. I have thanked God so much during that phase of my life for blessing me with such a supportive family, having resources to get the best of doctors and treatment. Unfortunately, I realized during the treatment that not everyone is as fortunate. I am now working with the aim of bringing down the mortality rate arising out of breast cancer in India. “
What started as providing emotional support and counseling to patients recommended by their doctor, to participating as volunteers in various awareness programs by other well known NGOs, resulted in the realization of a need so as to help and support young patients, as their struggle was different from that of the older ones.
At Jashne Zindagi, a support seminar
Adds Shruti, “During my treatment, I had a lot of (silly) questions like ‘Can I get myself waxed for a special occasion?’ and also questions related to leading a normal sexual life, but there was no way I could get these answers since there were no support groups around. It is this need that brought me and Neeti close. We shared the idea of starting a support group for young patients and survivors to address their questions during the treatment. We also noted a lot of myths and stigmas associated with the disease, and realized a need to come out in open and spread awareness.”
Neeti and Shruti share with me, “We started with young survivors in mind, and so our events at Yes to Life are designed around them. However our support services and awareness talks are not aimed at any particular age group. We reach out to schools, colleges, factories, communities, and we do it ourselves so that more and more people can come out and speak about this in open. It’s only when people discuss that true knowledge will spread.”
a) Sensitize: Sensitize people and spread awareness by organizing breast cancer awareness talks in societies, colleges, schools, factories, corporates, etc. and also organize awareness programs like seminars, fashion walks, etc. Sapient, LinkedIn, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University (support staff), Taj Vivanta, Guddi Exports, M3M Corporate Office, Pathways School, WTC Noida Development Pvt Ltd Co., IILM Gurgaon, Hyatt Place Gurgaon are some of the places where they have done such camps and workshops.
b) Screen: For the underprivileged section, Shruti and Neeti try to follow up an awareness talk with a cancer screening camp. They do it free of cost, so that maximum can benefit.
Giving a talk at a factory
c) Support: Provide emotional counselling to patients and caregivers, as well as run a support group with about 100+ members. The team also works towards providing financial support to underprivileged patients who are unable to bear the cost of treatment. Members provide each other with a positive outlook, faith, and strength to manage the phases of diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment successfully and happily. It is a forum where queries that can’t be checked with the doctors always get answered by group members, through sharing their own experiences.
That was 2012. Today it’s 2018.
Yes to life has won many awards and recognitions including the Most Promising NGO of the year 2017 at Magicka Angels Awards.
Today, Shruti works as an independent consultant along with spearheading various activities and engagements at Yes to life. She is a mother to a two-year-old little angel named Ilisha (meaning queen of the earth). She is also a fitness freak who recently ran the Pinkathon, finishing 3km run in 19 minutes, and aspires to run 5km next year.
Neeti and Shruti together, saying Yes to life
Neeti balances her time between Yes to life, and professional life as an Assistant Professor and corporate trainer; sometimes also writing to inspire. During my conversations with her, I found out that she has even penned a few moments from her journey here at Women’s Web. She does a lot of Aerobics and Yoga as a fitness enthusiast. Neeti so poetically sums up, “My life after cancer has become much more beautiful and meaningful. I enjoy the wind in my hair, every second spent with my son, rain on my hands, and every other moment in my life now! God has been so kind, and it’s time to help others now. ”
If that’s not enough positivity and spirit, I am leaving you with this beautiful video named ‘Feeling Alive’ which is about celebrating life cancer warrior style. Shot on cancer winners and penned by Neeti, check out the video here and let’s say Yes to this never say die attitude. Neeti and Shruti, you rock girls!
Images source: Neeti Leekha Chhabra & Shruti Sharma Anand
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