World Lymphoma Day: I am a cancer survivor and this is my story

The year was 2017, the date, March the 15th.

I’d spent the day on-site, working on a documentary profiling the Garud commandos of the Indian Air Force (IAF) at their base in Chandinagar near Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat.

As dusk approached I had missed a call. It took me back to an unfinished agenda – a medical report that I was to receive.

When I called back, it was the hospital.

The lady at the other end wouldn’t tell. She’d rather email.

When she did, we finally had an explanation for a lump on the left hand side of my neck which ordinary medication couldn’t shake offr days. I’d read up and suggested to my doctor the worst-case scenario only to be chided for ‘over-enthusiasm’. Now, my guess turned out correct.

Mine was a case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, they ruled.

On my forehead was cold sweat. The mind was agitated. And my day still had work left in it.

After realising that this no longer was a nightmare from which I would open my eyes to a ‘normal day’, I wrote in my diary:

“We will deal with this and deal with this well. There is one thing I promise now – my zest, my love and my humanity are only going to grow stronger. And I swear to whomsoever it may concern that I am going to beat the shit out of this. Cheers”

Over the next few days we worked with doctors to understand the full picture.

Of everyone, I was most nervous about informing my mother. Living on her own in Mumbai, I did not want her alone and worried at the same time. But her courageous stand, when I did inform her in person, gave wind to my sails.

As television journalists, our acquaintances see us even if we don’t see them.

This ailment forced upon me a hiatus from which I did not know when I would emerge. Some who were concerned began asking why they weren’t seeing me. Every time someone asked about my health, I told them the truth.

People offered assistance, advice, personal stories or simply their best wishes. That so many felt so strongly was almost therapeutic.

I was also lucky in that I did not suffer a single symptom associated with my ailment. The disease was at an early stage of its existence the tests had revealed.

Yet a slower but testing experience was about to begin.

By the middle of April, I’d embarked on six cycles of chemotherapy under the soft-spoken and tireless Dr Dinesh Bhurani of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre in the capital. Those undergoing chemotherapy are warned about multiple side effects which include but are not limited to pain, sleeplessness, mood swings and nausea.

For me, it was a period of observing the resilience of one’s body and mind. I was impressed how well my body faced up to regular doses of controlled and targeted toxicity. There was discomfort but it never got quite as bad.

With time on hand, I read, wrote, saw and learnt as much as I could. Sleeping without setting alarm and meditating daily helped restore my health.

During that period, I’d often come across news about fatalities caused by cancer. I must share – those stories broke my heart. They filled me with palpable fear. The words, ‘what if’ never really left my side.

In many ways, struggling with cancer is akin to climbing a difficult mountain. Sad as it may sound, not everyone who begins necessarily completes it.

I came across many whose situation wasn’t as comfortable as mine. Every time I did, I’d hope that a turnaround for them was around the corner.

Exactly a year ago and thereafter, scans could no longer find cancerous cells in my body. That was also the time my doctors granted me the permission to travel. It seems such an ordinary prospect yet after having lived in virtual house arrest for nearly six months, it meant the world to me.

All this would have been impossible without the person I, even before my cancer, referred to as my ‘Rock’, my wife Sapna.

If one moment she was my loving companion, the next she could be a cop knocking sense into me. She went to maddening lengths so that I ate right and stayed away from infections. All of it came at a price – her stress levels were peaking and it showed.

Now, I’ve promised to not make her worry about my health.

Also, being a far better writer than yours truly, I’d urge you to read her perceptive (and shorter) piece written last year. (https://goo.gl/Szzf7C).

Cancers associated with habits aside, the disease can affect anyone. After all, it is one among trillions of cells in our body that goes rogue and doesn’t know when to stop.

Having said that, I must add that cancer is weak in its early days.

What makes it weaker is a spirit that is both, happy and strong.

Why did it happen to me?

Science does not offer an explanation. But the fundamentals for a healthy and stable existence were not in place in my case.

Forget others, I used be extremely harsh on myself. No matter what I did or achieved, I’d always be unhappy, unsatisfied. In seeking more (not your healthy, motivated way, mind you), in punishing myself, I caused my mind and body immense and undue stress.

As someone who believed that life was all about work, I used to look down upon the very thought of sleeping beyond five hours a day. While I did find time to exercise but my eating habits and ‘work-life balance’ consistently left a lot to be desired.

Stress is underestimated and its impact on us, perhaps oversimplified.

A year after, I feel deeply connected to my mind and body and there is the desire to strengthen this bond.

I want to laugh more, love more, sing more and dance more.

Where I looked for distances, I today seek depth.

During my ailment, I would often look at people who were healthy and could go about their lives normally. Looking at them going to the restaurant, being able to walk in the park, go for a movie, have their loved ones over – things I could not do due to my treatment – made me appreciate the value of our health and the time we have on hand.

There was another set of people I would look at very often – patients and care-givers.

Step inside any hospital and there are so many! We often don’t realise how widespread suffering is, how widespread care-giving is. We can’t and don’t know the battles people around us are fighting.

There thousands of ‘unsung heroes’ among us at all times.

At the risk of sounding sagely, this realisation does fill me with compassion towards everyone.

I do not want to lend even an inch to emotions like anger and harshness, whether directed at myself or others.

My journey, for what it’s worth, has made me realise that our body and spirit have in them the keys to our wellness.

We only need to cultivate the right environment.

Cancer came to me as a pause. Thankfully in leaving, it gave me the opportunity to reset.

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‘Batman may not have limits but you do, Sir’

BY SAPNA NAIR PUROHIT

The background score of The Dark Knight has graced many of our drives. Although it is a bore fest for me, for my husband it is exhilarating every time. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that; grateful to Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, too, for that was the background score of our lives for the past few months.

 

My better (more resilient) half was detected with Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma – a form of cancer, neither peculiar nor familiar – in March this year. He was just 32 years old then, and was basking in the glory of having flown in two fighter planes, bracing and acing all its manic manoeuvres. He was on a high until curiosity got the better of him and he decided to get the seemingly harmless lump in his neck investigated. Ignorance is not a virtue for good journalists, impatience is.

 

I remember being not too bothered when he said the lump wasn’t decreasing in size despite the medicines he’d been taking. Our physician suspected TB or some sort of infection which may have just flared up the lymph node. But we pressed for a clearer diagnosis. An FNAC procedure was done on March 14. Report was due next day.

 

On the evening of March 15, while at my desk in office, I received a message from my husband. He had been out early morning doing what he loved – working his ass off on a short documentary for his channel. “The report is out,” it said. The cells had tested ‘positive’ for malignancy; ‘likely non-Hodgkin lymphoma’. My first reaction (and I’m not proud of it) was ‘WHAT THE FUCK’. That’s also my first reaction every time someone breaks a queue. But this broke my heart and my spirit. There was no time for a discussion or a false show of strength. He had a meeting scheduled with someone important.

 

I rushed to the loo to regain composure. The word ‘malignant’ kept playing in my head. I was bogged down by doubts and fears. All I wanted to do was hug him and never let go.

 

It was frightening… it hit me that our world was about to change for the worse. Having lived an extremely protected life, I had little courage or conviction to face what lay ahead. Or so I thought.

 

When we met at the parking lot, both of us had awkward smiles, tears hiding behind them. I had to revoke my ‘no PDA’ policy and crash into him right there. It’s amazing what a hug can do, especially a big, bear hug.

 

“It’s got the wrong guy,” he said, when we were back home, in his filmy demeanour, which is usually irksome. He said his body is Gotham, the cancer is Joker and he, Bruce Wayne. I sagely took on the role of Alfred.

 

What followed left us flustered. Myriad appointments with doctors, innumerable tests, hospital visits – a web of medical maze. We had put off informing family until the PET-CT scan was done, specifying the exact nature of the disease. There was a hint of happiness on our faces when our oncologist informed us that the cancer was in Stage 1A, and the probability of a cure was high.

 

Informing family about it was emotionally draining. Sounding confident, aware and in control – when the reality was a far cry from it all – was difficult. All of them gave us unstinting love and support. Our parents were especially pained by it, but remained positive throughout.

 

It has been six months since. We are six chemos down. The latest PET-CT scan has given us reasons to cheer. Our oncologist is satisfied with the outcome. Although one is aware of the fragility the disease brings with it, having emerged stronger is a great accomplishment.

 

The Dark Knight has risen. The Joker has fallen. Gotham is getting back on its feet. Meanwhile, Alfred continues to give unsolicited, albeit valuable, advice.

 

It’ll be a boon if Bane never shows up.