Cancer : A Survivor’s Tale

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.

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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.

 

Mumbai Attacks : The week that was

It has been a week now since the ruthless attacks. Public anger has never been so omnipresent and neither have our politicians come under such a heavy scrutiny(no wonder they have been royally goofing up and giving tactless statements which is doing nothing less than fuelling the fire). Targeting foreign nationals in the attacks was one foolish move by the terrorists because the whole world is now upon them like red ants. Statements which included words like “Stateless actors” which intended on shrugging off the responsibilities were not bought by anyone and laughed at. Incidences like a movie director taking a walk in the burnt down Taj were blown out of proportion by the media while the public gulped the news in disbelief(Sometimes the media do comes handy).

THE GREAT INDIAN FUMBLE

It had been a week of revelations. A coup de theatre beyond an equal. Two days into the ghastly event and three statements made by our politicians were elemental in converting the tide into a tsunami. 
R.R Patil made a juvenile statement about the incident being a “small one” and dug the grave of his political career. 
BJP Vice President Abbas Naqvi puddled in troubled waters when he made the “women wearing powder and lipstick and burning candles” remark. The audacity of it was that he himself was wearing a coat while he defamed the Indians for aping the west and its an entirely different story that he was asked to comment on something else.  
The icing on the cake came from Kerela’s CM V.S. Achuthanandan who ended up making a statement which could be considered the worst insult someone can inflict on a martyr’s family. Of course, a lot of pressure went into making him apologize but the harm was already done. Sample this:

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On the other hand, the attacks opened up the Pandora’s box and everyone from the Intelligence Agencies to the Maharashtra Government and the Center turned a beetroot red. Our PM mumbled a few inaudible statements about setting up a federal spy agency and creating four NSG hubs while the nation came in terms with the fact that the Navy and the Coast Guard ignored the intercept from RAW that these attacks were expected, that the intelligence agencies had informed a year ago that such an attack was in the pipeline and that the U.S. informed India twice about the upcoming sea attack on Mumbai. The Government gave a jaw dropping performance making the citizens realize that their lives really don’t matter. The word politician ended up becoming a swear word and the nation realized that human life was the cheapest commodity in our country.
The way the whole operation was handled also came under the scanner. A minister taking 90 minutes to respond to such a critical situation, the NSG commandos transported from airport in BEST buses and shoved in the 1500 room Taj without any night vision equipment knowing very well that there was no electricity in the hotel and policemen wearing outdated bullet proof jackets was something which the common man was not ready to watch on live television. The crudity of it all was hard hitting.

THE REACTIONS

Israel offered help but India denied it without a second thought. Pakistan Government and media were busy vehemently denying any connection with the attacks. It was not surprising that Pakistan rejected the list sent by India stating that they wanted more proofs. I am sure that even if we dance in front of them with proof in our hands, they will even go to the extend of putting hot rods in their eyes to ignore us. The main accused of the 1993 blasts is still to be handed to us, even after ample proof of his involvement and whereabouts in his plush bungalow in Pakistan, so we can expect some action on this recent event in another 20 years. Ofcourse, there were some sane people who understood the gravity of the situation. You can read three very balanced articles by eminent Pakistani columnists here.

Although people have been dying left right and center in India since ages, the whole world suddenly woke up to the fact because this time the target were foreign nationals too. Atleast 26 of them lost their lives and although Delhi, Jaipur and Ahmadabad had gone through such similar attacks this year, the repercussion which the Mumbai attacks created were something else. Its good in many ways because this time, the “Rice” boiled with a lot of pressure over Pakistan. Lets just hope that the pressure mounts instead of subsiding.

WE THE PEOPLE

I don’t think India has seen such massive reaction from the citizens since a long time. People flooded the roads and the media projected the anger beautifully. For the first time I thought that they were doing something constructive, no matter how melodramatically. Its not just that we are condemning Pakistan(maybe we are too tired to do that now, because its of no use), but this time we were questioning our own security system. I just saw an operation done by a news channel where they were checking the security at one of the Delhi Railway Stations. Nothing has been done and its as vulnerable as it was earlier and that too when there have been reports that Delhi is the next target. A similar operation was done in Mumbai and the policemen were caught napping as a revolver was taken inside the railway station.

We have been pointing fingers at the politicians about being irresponsible but how much cliched it might sound, we have to be the change we want to see. We, as citizens of this nation, are also irresponsible at the grassroot level. Leave alone taking responsibilities about important issues, how many of us don’t bribe traffic police officers, litter of the road, do illegal constructions and break traffic rules? Did we succeed as a generation who considers themselves as Indians first and then something else? Isn’t it ironical that we need a tragedy of such humongous scale to unite us? Oscillating the Government from BJP to Congress and back to BJP is not going to play the trick and we all know that. Both the parties have an equally bad track record. Its the “people” of this nation who have to change, and those “people” include the “politicians” and “all of us”. 

Lets not become this guy who spit all his venom on a Jet air-hostess. Generalizing and putting a whole community in a box is the last thing which we should indulge in right now. Hats off to all those who stood up and actually did something to help the victims. I know one of them and you can find her here

FINALLY

Even though India has a go ahead for the air attacks in case the Pakistan Government fails to raise the terrorist camps to the ground, I am not sure if the Indian Government might actually take the step. I hope we don’t forget this incidence like so many other and our Government take the necessary steps without wasting ages to ponder over them. We don’t have that liberty left and it definitely doesn’t work when we end up being called “a known softie”.

Some interesting reads:

Dear Mr. Terrorist

Reflecting on Mumbai

For Heroes of Mumbai, Terror was a call to action

[photograph courtesy Times of India]

Terrorism, Mumbai and the Jealous Kid

mumbaiDuring the 1980s, when Punjab was in the claws of Terrorism, I was watching Doordarshan when something came up which I would never forget. I was a kid at that time but the visuals left a lasting impact. They were interviewing a Sikh boy(not more that 14-15 years of age) whose whole family was killed in their own house by the terrorists. The boy saved himself by hiding behind the sofa from where he saw terrorists raping his sister throughout the night and shooting her while leaving in the morning. 

I could never forget the face of that boy.

Mumbai terrorist attack which continued almost for 3 days, brought back all the bitter memories. I used to think that we are fortunate that we have not seen the atrocities of the partition, but I am not sure now. All of us have seen some incidences which we will never forget our entire lives. It was the way these attacks were carried out, the brutality of it all, that left me stunned. My paternal Uncle works in Oberoi and it was his lucky day. He had a morning shift next day and left in the evening before it all started. 

What surprised me was that when the terrorists entered the hotels, they asked for people having U.S and UK passports. They just made the reason of the attack so obvious. They are not asking for Kashmir anymore. I don’t think that is the motto anymore because they must have realized that they are not going to get it anyways. The reason has shifted. Its plain Jealousy.

Pakistan and India were born together. But 50 years down the line, India is seen as a potential superpower. There are reports that project India and China as the next emerging powers of the world. And where is our neighbouring country? Nowhere! Its just a terrorist state which breed Terrorism and make the life of the neighbouring countries miserable. They would have equalled India if probably they would have channeled their brains towards the development of their country rather that breeding Terrorists and planning coups. India is at this stage today because we “wanted” our nation to be here. We were not busy planning how to kill people in other countries. And what is happening in Pakistan now? Terrorists fighting amongst each other??

The message which the terrorists wanted to send out via the attacks was very clear – India is as unsafe as any of her neighbours. So why the hell are the Foreign companies investing in India? How can the whole world lend a hand in India’s stupendous development when there is no life safety there? Why doesn’t the world look towards its adjoining neighbours? The whole act reminds me of a kid who one day sees his neighbouring kid having a bright shiny bike and feels so miserable and helpless that he goes and breaks that bike just because his loser father does not have the brains to afford one. The kid thinks that this act would satisfy the jealousy, but at the end of the day, he still does not have the bike! No matter what the terrorist wanted, they have just made the world underline the negative mindset which they had of their country. 

If India wanted, we could have been doubly malicious. But we have always been very forgiving. Since we can’t stoop to such a low levels by sending militant groups to our neighbouring countries to kill people there, we need to tighten our own security. 

Its time that the Indian Government acts. For once, the political parties need to STOP using terrorism as an excuse to hit on each other. Please, anything else but terrorism. All the parties and people have to come together when this word is uttered. We have to stand united on this one otherwise GOD knows what more we might have to go through. We all have had enough of tension and drama in the last three days to last a lifetime. It was disheartening to see BJP coming up with slogans against Congress regarding this terrorist attack even before the operation was over. I urge all the political parties to cut the crap and DO something constructive. Something which will make sure that the next time the jealous kid tries to break the bike, we can kick his butt real hard.

A bag of dreams

The moment the HR executive announced Aman’s name, his eyes witnessed a temporary blackness. It happens with many of us in the moment of sheer ecstasy when we finally achieve what we have diligently strived for. He just stared at her blankly waiting for the veil of blackness to lift and waiting for her to announce his name again. He just wanted to make sure that he was not dreaming.

“Mr. Aman, you have been selected by our company. Congratulations.”, the pretty HR executive repeated and smiled.

He smiled which made the tears in his eyes shine. Yes, he was not dreaming.

                                                           *  *  *

Aman came form a middle class family. His father had always been burdened by the dreams of providing his children all that he himself could never attain. Aman and his sister got everything they wanted for a better future without any compromises. Aman’s father was a government servant and had a very limited salary while his mother was a housewife. Loans and love went hand in hand as the children grew up. In a very tender age both of them realized that their parents went through a lot of hardship so that their children can reach a point in their lives where there are no sacrifices. 
Aman was always a focused child who had his priorities right from the very beginning. He wanted his family to be happy and he wanted to live a life with them where there was no thinking twice before indulging into something. Where no one in the family have to nip a wish in the bud. 
Today, he had taken a huge step towards that dream.

                                                              *  *  *

This was his first job interview and the hard work paid off. He got through the 6 rounds of interview very easily. The salary was very good and for a second a whole collage of his dreams passed in front of his eyes. Repaying all his father’s loans, marrying off his sister(something about which his mother worried a lot), sending his parents  for a world tour, buying a car, a house. They were very ordinary dreams. Something every second human you meet on the road dreams of. But they are the crux of their existence. They live their whole life just to fulfill them. Aman was one such face in the crowd. No, the dreams were not ordinary for him. He had lived them thousands of time spending each and every moment of his life inching towards them. The smile was not leaving his face.
He called up home to break the news.
“Oh! God is merciful.”, his mother said as tears welled up in her eyes. 
“I am coming back. Don’t tell father about the job. We’ll surprise him!”, he said.
“Ok. And bring some sweets too. Oh! I am so happy!!”, his mother said as she wiped away her tears.

Aman bought the sweets and took the local bus to home.

                                                              *  *  *

It took Aman’s family a long time to identify his body. It was completely charred. The blast was so powerful that his family had to take away his body minus two limbs. They were able to identified him with the help of a half burnt bag which was found next to his body. The bag contained his burnt degree certificates, the offer letter of the company and a packet of his favorite sweets.

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When someone gets killed in such cowardly attacks, he is not just a number. Many dreams die with him and many people lose the will to live without him. 
We all know that we are worse off than animals but lets strive to equal them atleast and ask all the “various” Gods for which we are killing each other to provide us with some sanity to achieve that. 

It has been a crazy day, a nightmare full of insanity.
Lets pray for all the Amans killed today in Mumbai. 

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