I met Anjali(name changed) during my two months job related training in Bhubaneswar. She was a jovial and friendly person who made me laugh at the drop of a hat. I still chuckle when I remember her imitating Salman while dancing to “Just Chill” during the Diwali Party. After our training got over, she went to her hometown, Mumbai while I went to Chennai. We were in touch by phone calls and emails.
A few months later, Anjali gave me a news which shocked me beyond limits. I could not imagine a bubbly person like her to go through this trauma.
This is her story in her own words. Thanks Anjali for doing this Guest Post.
It was a recurring nightmare that I always had, an innate fear of losing my parents. I would wake up crying every time I had that nightmare.
When my mother casually remarked regarding a lump in her breast, I was taken aback. She had it for almost a year now and had not taken the pains to get a mammography done. Every time I thought about it and urged my mother to come for a mammography scan, I kept saying that it might not be cancer. But inside I had a feeling that something really bad was going to happen. It was as if God had been giving me signs all along and preparing me for the most difficult phase in the 25 years of my life.
My heart always skipped a beat whenever I saw the ‘CanCure’ clinic on my way back from office. Reading stories published in newspapers always gave me sleepless nights. That compared with my nightmares were taking a toll on my mind.
Then one day, my worst fear came true…
It was the month of November in 2006. My parents came from the doctor’s office with pale, white faces. Yes, the mammogram and the fine-needle biopsy results were positive. My mother was diagnosed with Grade 3, Stage 3 Invasive ductal carcinoma. In common words, she had a highly invasive breast cancer, which had a high possibility to spread into different parts of the body, through the lymphatic system. We could not believe it. Nobody in our family had ever had a history of cancer. My mother had no major risk factors. Its human nature that makes us think that we have been dealt a death sentence when we’re told we have the “C” word.
After the diagnosis, it was a roller coaster nightmare. Since the cancer was of an invasive nature, surgery had to done as soon as possible to remove the tumor and limit the seepage of cancerous cells into the body. Things happened so fast; we didn’t have a moment for self-pity. I had to put a brave front in front of my parents reassuring them, keeping cheerful all the time. However, every moment that I was alone, be it on my way to office or sleeping at night…. tears would just roll out (as are rolling now) and every time I had just one question from God…why her?
My mother got operated in December 2006. She was operated in Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai, one of the best cancer hospital and research centres in the country. The doctors really helped infuse positivism in her whenever she went for consultation. The surgery usually takes 2-3 hours. However, she was taken inside the operation theater at nine in the morning, and came out in the ICU at seven in the evening. All this while my dad and I were perched outside the O.T., fearing that the worst had happened, since it was almost ten hours since my mother was taken for the surgery. It was after my mother came out of the ICU two days later when we came to know that although she was taken inside the O.T., the actual surgery started at three in the afternoon and she was in queue!! The doctor who operated on her had 29 surgeries lined up only for that particular day!! It is such incidents that infused a little humor into our otherwise ‘super-stressed’ lives. One must applaud the sheer dedication of the team of doctors who perform such a mammoth number of surgeries three days a week and still have a smile on their face, reassuring every patient who comes to them with hope.
The basic line of treatment for any cancer is surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The drugs and its amounts administered depend on case-to-case and the type of cancer. Cancer treatment differs from person to person and very few people suffering from the same type of cancer would have similar line of treatment. As is the case of breast cancer, the size of the tumor and if the cells are highly malignant, is the deciding factor whether the patient will be given chemotherapy prior to surgery or post-surgery.
Amongst the diagnostic tests done prior to the surgery, a number of biopsies are done, wherein a sample of the tumor is aspirated with the help of a fine needle and examined thoroughly by cytologists for the extent of cancerous cells in the tissue sample. However, these are just indicative tests. The most accurate test is performed on the removed tumor and adjoining tissues after the surgery. It is during the surgery, and after the biopsy tests are available, that the exact line of further treatment is decided.
Before my mother underwent lumpectomy surgery (wherein the tumor and adjoining tissues and lymph nodes are removed surgically), the doctors said that she would have to undergo only surgery and radiation therapy and not chemotherapy. But after her biopsy results were out the doctors said that since the cancer was of malignant nature, we needed undergo chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer by killing cells that divide rapidly, which is one of the main properties of cancer cells. This means that it also harms cells that divide rapidly under normal circumstances like the cells in hair follicles, those in the digestive tract and in bone marrow. The type of chemotherapy treatment you are given depends on many things like, the type of cancer you have, where the cancer started in your body, what the cancer cells look like under the microscope and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. The side effects of chemotherapy are what made us really scared. We had heard that people not succumbing to the disease; have succumbed to the rigorous sessions of chemotherapy.
I remember the time when my father called me from the hospital after the biopsy results were out, that my mother would need to undergo chemotherapy, I was in office and could not stop my tears in the meeting I was in. I then went out and had a walk around the office trying to console myself that if this is what God wants us to go through, let it be.
My main concern while mom was undergoing chemo, was that she will loose all her appetite with all the nausea and vomiting, when this is the time to put in all the nutrients possible to help fight the disease. On the other hand my mother was worried about losing her hair and how will she look bald…
My mother had this feeling that everyone was watching her with pity. I recently went to a breast cancer clinic wherein survivors meet people undergoing treatment and share their experiences. A woman, who had a mastectomy a few weeks earlier, was so conscious that she wrapped a shawl around her. On being questioned by a social worker on why you are trying to hide it, she broke into tears pitying herself and the situation she was in. That is when I realized how crippling this disease is. It not only cripples the person physically, but also leaves a deep gash mentally and leaves all the family emotionally drained. A woman’s self-esteem goes down the drain after being diagnosed.
Although my father having worked for the Central Government, received the entire medical amount (which ran in lakhs) reimbursed, one must think about the not so privileged who also face a huge loss financially. I’ve heard stories from people in Tata Memorial hospitals general ward. They have only one refrigerator to keep the chemotherapy medicines. There have been instances wherein someone who couldn’t afford it has stolen people’s medicines from that refrigerator. I still shudder when I think about this.
Then came the day I almost lost my mother….
The chemotherapy started one month after the surgery. She was to undergo six cycles, each cycle after three weeks, to give the body some time to recuperate from the side effects. After the first cycle of chemotherapy was complete, we came home as usual and tried to get mother to eat little meals in forms of soups and porridge. But whatever we gave her, she was not able to eat and would throw up at the slightest food odour. She once joked that I’m feeling pregnant again …coz that’s how she felt back then, with all the nausea. One evening she complained of feeling cold. By nine in the night she was shivering while we were feeling hot. We called the doctor, who prescribed some medicines to control the fever. By next day morning, the fever rose to 104 degrees and she was rushed to the hospital. A quick blood test revealed that she was suffering from a condition called Neutropenia or Low White Blood Cell Count. White blood cells help the body to fight infections. In an average human body, the WBC count is usually in the range of 4,000 – 11,000 per mm3 of blood. In Neutropenia, it is less than 1000. In my mother’s case it was 300; which implied that even a sneeze caused a life-threatening infection. She was kept in an isolated room where only doctors and nurses were allowed to go. She was kept on round the clock antibiotics to help lower the infection. We could see her only through a small window and wave and pray that she was fine. By God’s grace and the doctor’s concoctions of heavy doses of antibiotics, she was fine. She stayed in the hospital for 2 weeks after that, till her next chemo cycle was done.
I used to be in the hospital for nights. My sister, my mother’s friends and I would take turns staying at the hospital. A good support cycle really helps during trying times.
She came home after a while and was feeling very relieved. And then, she started loosing hair by bunches. She was totally bald in a few days. She stopped looking into the mirror for quite sometime after that. I would try to cheer her up by buying beautiful scarves matching with all her sarees. I had thought of getting my hair cut very short, in order to accompany her. But she laughed, thanked me for the thought and advised me against it.
I also remember another incident. It was the day of the Hindu festival Holi. Due to her ill health, my mother was required to be administered an injection. I remember I had such a tough time going out in the empty streets with 90% of the shops closed; braving hooligans who wanted to throw water and color on me. Eventually at one of the hospital pharmacies, I was able to get the required injection and a doctor who stayed in our building administered the medicine.
I was also amused by how people of different faiths come and try to preach their faith in order to get rid of the disease. One person talked about how Baba Ramdev had ‘cured’ people of cancer. Another one claimed that Jesus is the savior and told the story of a person who started praying to him (and later converted to Christianity) and within days his cancer was gone. Yet another person told that in the foothills of the Himalayas there is a saint who gives ayurvedic medicines that removes the root cause of the disease. There are various other alternative therapies claiming the heavens. In order to maintain our sanity, we tried all possible ways to stop people from meeting her. It usually happens that during suffering, we tend to believe anything to get rid of the situation we are in.
Time flew by during the entire cycle of chemotherapy treatment, which lasted for 6 months. Post chemotherapy, the radiation treatment was to be started. Radiation therapy is the medical use of radiation as part of cancer treatment to control cancerous cells. She was to be given radiation treatment for 31 days, 5 days a week. Only hospitals specializing in cancer treatment provide radiation therapy; in my mother’s case it was Tata Memorial Centre. The side effects of radiation therapy are in some cases fewer than that of chemotherapy. However, in my mother’s case, side effects of the two were almost similar. During her radiotherapy treatment, one day I wasn’t feeling well and went to the doctor complaining of vomiting and an upset stomach. The doctor told me that it was gastroenteritis infection and I stayed in the hospital for 2 days due to weakness. I always remember how helpless my mother felt when she came t visit me in the hospital. Her tears were telling me that she’s feeling sorry to see me in pain and helpless for the fact that she can’t take care of me. I put up a brave front and managed to get discharged in a day. During the entire time, my father was rock solid, even though his face showed the stress.
Finally by August 2007, her entire treatment was completed. She was then put on a hormone-blocking medicine called Arimidex, which has to be taken for 5 years. The usual period for declaring a patient cancer-free is five years. Before that, she has to make regular visits to the doctor every three months, till five years. After that period, an annual visit along with diagnostic test is the usual procedure.
Currently my mother is keeping fine. It’s my nephew that is keeping her busy and taking her mind off the usual aches and pains that she faces. I would say that it was the sheer positivism and will power of my mother that made her come out of this phase of her life.
Our only flaw was that even after being educated and having information about how lumps in the breast need to be checked for breast cancer, we did not take immediate action. If we had taken so, at least the grade and stage of cancer would have been less.
Also regarding cancer, people have this general thought that it can’t happen to them. Or, I’m not old enough to have this disease. This is a major misconception amongst people. Cancer is such a disease that can strike anywhere and in any form. The only hope is to be forearmed. With respect to breast cancer, the most important strategy in improving survival is breast cancer screening and early detection. Currently, mammography and breast examinations serve as the foundation for screening for breast cancer. It is extremely important for a woman to have regular breast examinations as well as mammograms to detect early breast cancer. There are two important aspects in breast-cancer prevention: early detection and risk reduction. Screening may identify early noninvasive cancers and allow treatment before they become invasive or identify invasive cancers at an early treatable stage. All females should get regular screening done. All males should encourage their mothers and sisters to get timely screening done. Remember that cancer is curable, if detected early.