Boyfriend and I started the New Year low-key and by that, I mean not gyrating to deafening music at an unearthly hour in Delhi’s bone-chilling winter. He was more relieved than upset, because by now he was tired of nursing my hangovers at the start of the year. A teetotaler, he could not understand why this routine had been adhered to for so many years – till this one – 2016.
A few days earlier, I had noticed something out of the ordinary – a tiny lump just a little above my left breast. I looked at it suspiciously, then dismissed it immediately, refusing to allow more space to a thought that crossed my mind. For days, the lump sat precariously under my bra strap, not allowing me to look away. And still I did nothing.
So, back to New Year’s Eve, well spent with the boyfriend. I rolled my head back and laughed at our silly banal jokes, sipping my favourite cinnamon whisky. YES? Then I casually let it slip. Is that a lump, I asked him, or just a mosquito bite sort of thing? He was taken aback and took off with a barrage of questions. I needed another drink to handle his anxiety.
As his questions poured all over me, I looked back and wondered why I had not acted when I know I should have. Like a spoilt child, did I imagine the lump would disappear if I didn’t pay it attention? Had I been trying to convince myself all would be well, before I even know if something was wrong?
Denial I have used both to run away from and overcome things in life. The next morning, I resumed life as though that conversation had never happened. What can be better than a late-morning jog on a Delhi winter morning? The high wore off a little when my bestie called to check if I had booked ourselves a gynae appointment. We had both talked about starting the year with a round-up of our physical health. Except I no longer wanted one. Denial again. I decided to lie and said the doctor was out of town. But people close to us know us better than we think they do. She decided to call the doctor herself and also mentioned my lump. Apart from the boyfriend, she was the only one who knew about it. Now there were three. The doc immediately ordered a mammography. Not what I wanted, but this time, I did the smart thing.
I went for my mammography with my heart pounding fast and the rest of me moving slow. The doctor was a comforting father figure, who, I think, sensed my anxiety. We engaged in random conversations. Not one to show my emotions easily, I went big on bravado. I told him I knew all about lumps and breast cancer as I had produced a documentary on it as recently as a year ago. There was a considerable mismatch between what I was saying to him and what was whirring in my head.
On close examination, he set me up for an ultrasound and FNAC (a diagnostic procedure used to detect lumps) and asked me to come back two days later to collect the result. The next 48 hours were packed with ‘hows’.
I was physically fit, worked out religiously, lead a disciplined life (bordering on irritating for many), ate a good diet, balanced my emotional, spiritual and mental self – how was it possible for anything to be wrong with me?
Two days later, when his assistant phoned, asking me to meet him, I knew what was coming. Fortunately, I was not shattered and took the news very well, to the surprise of both the boyfriend and the doctor. This time, they thought I was in denial, but nothing could be further from the truth. This one time, I looked at the problem straight in the eye and said – bring it on. My teeny-weeny lump was malignant. I had breast cancer.
I had found some reserve of strength to deal with the diagnosis. But I struggled to hold onto it while breaking the news to my mother and the rest of the family. After my first call to her, she called me back several times that morning, each time her voice heavier than before. ‘Have you been crying, mamma?’ I asked her. ‘No’, she said, ‘only praying’. Then she said she would tell whoever else needed to know. I see all this as a clear benefit of a very strong and consistent Buddhist practice which doesn’t allow us to drown in our problems, no matter how big they are.
Fortunately for me, my malignancy was Stage 1. My big learning in all this – we women must get screened, specially post 40. We’re all at risk, irrespective of our lifestyle, family history of cancer or anything else that we may use to convince ourselves otherwise. Over 40, pre-menopausal, non-child-bearing, no breast-feeding. It all adds up to high risk. This is the category to which I belonged. Take screening seriously. It doesn’t take long.
Oddly, before I was diagnosed, it may have been fear that kept me from seeking a mammography, but now that I knew something was wrong, I was not afraid at all. It’s not clear what I placed my hopes in. Was it the latest technologies? Doctors? Myself? My support system? May be all this plus more. What we think of cancer is probably bigger than the cancer itself.
I was operated on within five days of my test results. Be gone, lump! I changed nothing in my life – went to work as usual, hung out with friends, travelled and did yoga every day. I wanted the house to be as lively, our family’s fights as routine, and our interactions to be as normal as possible.
That worked – in bits and pieces. Then came chemotherapy. It may seem superficial, but that was the first thing that drew real fear from me in my squaring off with cancer. It was losing my hair and a changed appearance that I dreaded. And yes, I was disappointed with my own reaction. I know myself to be a strong, logical person and here I was, contemplating whether to abstain from chemo because I wanted to keep looking like myself, never mind the medical urgency of defeating cancer.
I argued with family, the boyfriend and even doctors, but eventually gave in.
Chemo can be tough. It physically batters you in many ways, while demolishing your vanity. My lovely locks fell in clumps within two weeks of my first session. It was a sight for which no one had prepared me. Everywhere I put my head, even on my mother’s lap, I would find clumps in my trail. Each time some hair dropped off, my face felt less like my own. If this wasn’t enough, I started gaining weight. Suddenly my focus shifted from fighting my illness to the externalities that I should have been able to ignore.
I went back to my Buddhist practice. Chanting helped me re-align and focus on the essential. I accepted my new self as a temporary new me. I got myself a wig and cool bandanas. I slowly started coming to terms with a bald me. There was no disguising it anymore. People knew instantly when they spotted me that I was dealing with cancer. I felt no need to conceal the details or seek privacy. I preached screenings, and many women took my advice.
After chemo came a four-week-long radiation. Everyone said it was going to be a breeze and the worst was behind me. Not true. This is when my grit, determination and strength were really tested. These four weeks turned out to be the toughest on me physically. My nausea peaked and each day I was sick no matter what. My stomach lining went for a toss (it could be the delayed effect of the chemo), my body hurt, I was fatigued and breathless.
I didn’t give up – the people around me wouldn’t allow that. A friend volunteered to do yoga with me in the park, colleagues offered to come to my house for work instead of me having to go to office… for every problem, there was a solution.
So I got through it without changing much of my life or routine, which allowed me not to give in to feelings of hopelessness. I counted on resolution. Today, I have it.
I know I have this under control. I am confident of those who will keep me in shape, mentally, physically and emotionally. I believe that my body will fight back when it is under attack. I even like my hair short.
This is not denial. It is my surety – cancer has given me more than it has taken away.
(Anju Yadav is Senior Content Producer at NDTV)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.