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As A Cancer Survivor In My Teens, Shormistha Mukherjee’s Cancer Memoir Validated My Feelings

When I read that Shormistha Mukherjee was able to draw boundaries I could see the difference in our experiences. But for the first time, I was also validated. I wasn’t wrong to have those feelings of guilt, fear, shame, loss of self esteem.

When I read Cancer, You Picked the Wrong Girl by Shormistha Mukherjee, I could see the difference in our experiences. But for the first time, I was also validated. I wasn’t wrong to have those feelings of guilt, fear, shame, loss of self esteem.

When I was informed that I suffer from Pre B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the only response my 14yo brain could process and spit out was, “Could the name not be a little shorter?” I was later informed that the name induced fear amidst adults. It’s so long, it must be serious. I thought it was really cool!

For 14 years I kept my distance from cancer narratives for I didn’t want to see blind or toxic optimism or celebrities going abroad to get treated or worse, life lessons without nuanced examples and context. I had seen enough death and sickness around me being the oldest patient in a child cancer ward, occasionally sharing a semi-private room with a new born baby. I had seen joy too, every time someone completed their treatment, or simply moved to being an outpatient. Little things in a long term treatment!

I was taken by surprise when I began reading Shormistha Mukherjee’s Cancer, You Picked The Wrong Girl. It took me no time to put the author and myself in a bubble called ‘we’ simply because she said, “In fact, I think cancer probably saved my life.” Something I’ve held on to since the beginning even though no one seems to grasp the reasons behind it. No one but Mukherjee!

Diagnosed with cancer!

Shormistha Mukherjee was a workaholic, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur whose life revolved around meetings, calls, and mails. For seven years, she’s been physically and mentally exhausted. Hence, when cancer slowed down her life, it was a relief that she didn’t know she needed to appreciate the little things and people in her life.

“Not destroyed that I have cancer. But grateful, that I have people who love me, the means, friends, a job where everyone is supportive. I wasn’t unlucky. I was lucky.”

Upon being diagnosed with grade three breast cancer, Mukherjee’s life took a turn. Work meetings were replaced by multiple hospital and doctor visits. Sometimes she felt like she ceased to be a person when a few doctors looked at her upon diagnosis, informing her of the next step without taking the time to express what is really happening to her. At other times, she found doctors who comforted her, gave her the time to process the clarified her doubts, cautiously advised the next steps in the treatment. From being an entrepreneur she became a hospital number.

“Every time I walk into a hospital, that file will be my identity. And for months that is all I will be. A thick bunch of reports and files and X-rays and prescriptions and everything else that I could never have imagined.”

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Facing ‘sympathy’

If this weren’t enough to deal with, there comes the look of pity and sympathy that one has to get used to.

Cancer is a big word that people don’t really understand. For someone away from the world of sickness, it continues to be a word that’s spoken in whispers. It’s dreadful because it’s still considered deadly when most forms of it are completely curable these days. And talking about breast cancer is still a taboo because people aren’t comfortable speaking about ‘boobs’ even now.

Mukherjee took a bold step by choosing to be vocal about her sickness right from the start. She mentioned it to her friends, colleagues, and family. There was nothing to be ashamed of, she decided.

“Because in that instant I decided none of this was my fault. I had nothing to hide. I was not going to blame myself, or keep it a secret. It was cancer. The doctor said it was treatable. So that was it. There was some giant lucky draw that happened in the sky, or rather, some giant not-so-lucky draw, and I got picked. That was it.”

Talking of the ‘feelings’ that come with cancer – the guilt fear, shame, loss of self esteem…

I think this is the point where I get envious of Shormistha Mukherjee, that she suffered and survived cancer as an adult. She was in a place to decide for herself. Of all the things that she narrates, I got extremely jealous when I read that she could mindfully prioritise herself, her feelings, her needs during the course of the treatment. She could see her friends, family, and spouse suffering along with her. Yet, she was aware enough to understand that she needs to focus on herself. She could manage the guilt, if not keep it aside.

“And I have to put myself first. My getting better is the only thing I should focus on, everything else will be secondary.”

I say this because as a 14yo with cancer, I was drowning in guilt. There was so much family drama around me, so many separations within the family so that they could take care of me. I didn’t get the chance to wonder why it was happening to me. I just didn’t want to see my (extended) family make sacrifices just so I was comforted and happy. It was awful to be not able to express my fears and guilt. I didn’t even know I was allowed to express them. It was only ten years later that I had an emotional breakdown. The most important question was – why did I not prioritise how I was feeling?

When I read that Shormistha Mukherjee was able to draw boundaries I could see the difference in our experiences. But for the first time, I was also validated. I wasn’t wrong to have those feelings of guilt, fear, shame, loss of self esteem. Even though I didn’t speak of these things as opposed to the positive aspects of surviving, I now know that it was okay to not be optimistic the whole time. I also realised that it wasn’t entirely self-betrayal to be comforting others. She felt it too.

“It was funny. All these people going to pieces, and the patient going, ‘There, there.’”

The chemotherapy ‘worse than the cancer’

The thing that I enjoyed reading about the most is the side-effects of chemotherapy. I firmly believe that treatment for cancer is worse than its symptoms. I mean, when I see people being afraid of cancer, I chuckle inside my head – wait till you hear of chemotherapy, just you wait!

The description of chemotherapy is perhaps the most devastating part for any reader, not for me. I was right there, living it all over again, rather glad that it’s over. Vomiting? Yes. Loss of self-esteem with hairfall? Hell yeah! Bowel movements have their own mood swings? There, there. Awkward places to put medicines in? Been there sister! So on and so forth. I ‘enjoyed’ it so much that I wanted the treatment to go on and on.

Mukherjee had six months of chemotherapy, I had it for three goddamn years – I practically started looking at the chemo port as a part of my body and mourned plenty when it was removed to mark the completion of my treatment.

As odd as it may sound, chemotherapy is a language that I understand and would any day sit down to talk about it if I find people who enjoy it without giving me looks that say, she’s crazy! C’mon! We lived the dreadful times, it’s only fair that we get to describe it with all the drama and flair – which Mukherjee does just about right!

Is there any survivor guide for cancer?

I don’t quite know if there’s a survival guide for cancer. Is there a reason why some people live, others don’t? I know that people see it as a deadly disease, rightly so. So, when someone survives it, it seems like a miracle. Something that wasn’t expected. They call the survivor brave. Fighter is how they are addressed in every conversation. It honestly feels good, to be acknowledged, feel seen. However, it often happens that people are completely unaware of the big ball of contradictory emotions running in the veins of survivors. There’s the optimism to fight, hold on. There’s also the thought to just give up on some days.

I believe this is a crucial aspect of survivor narratives – that they create the space to express how they felt without the obligation to part life lessons if they don’t want to. I absolutely love that Shormistha Mukherjee spoke of a few lessons towards the end, giving them some limelight, but not enough to make them the centre of her story.

Cancer, You Picked the Wrong Girl is a well balanced depiction right from the beginning. It shows that the person who’s just got the diagnosis can be simply worried about her neon bra and where to put it, and that’s Ok. She doesn’t have to be crying and drowning in depression right away. There’s no prescribed response. So, while people see survivors as they do, I think it’s very important to hold space for survivors to tell their story!

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About the Author

Akankshya Abismruta

Feminist. Writer. Questions everything. Scribbles everywhere. read more...

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