by Dr.Sampada Peshwe
“Kishori Aunty is no more” are words that still ring in my ears. I was only 11 years old then. My beloved aunt had been ailing with cancer for the past few years and we had seen her become progressively weaker with each passing day. Yet, the dreadful news was like a kick in my stomach. My soft-spoken, large-hearted aunt, whose smile never left her lips even in the darkest hours engendered by the disease, was cruelly snatched away from us by cancer.
“Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer”. One of my mom’s closest friends took me and my younger brother Amol aside and revealed this to us as gently as she could. It was barely 5 years since cancer had claimed my aunt and all those memories came rushing back. “Is mom also going to die of cancer?” my brother asked innocently. In those days the perception of cancer was thoroughly negative and cancer was synonymous with death. All of us would have been very scared, but for the exemplary courage my mother showed in the face of this seemingly incorrigible disease.
Barring her recovery period from the surgery and the initial days following every dose of chemotherapy, she went to work every single day. She maintained a sense of complete normalcy in the household throughout the duration of her treatment. There were no tears, no melodrama, no wallowing in self pity and no statements of ‘Why me?’. Oblivious to us, her approach instilled a notion in our psyche that cancer could easily be triumphed over.
“I don’t know how to say this, but your lump has tested positive for breast cancer”. My mother tried to break this news as gently as she could to me and my husband Akhilesh. It was barely a month after my wedding and I was only 26. My mother had given her own cancer a tough fight, but seeing her own daughter afflicted with the same disease was probably more difficult for her to digest. To my own surprise, and everyone else’s, my next words were a calm “Ok, so what do we do next?”.
I am myself unaware from where I got this composure, but I truly did not feel any dread on hearing the news. Immediately after my mother’s diagnosis, I was given a fair idea that I came in the high risk category for breast cancer, since my mother and aunt were both cancer afflicted. Probably this was firmly ensconced in my subconscious and I was expecting that I too may be diagnosed with cancer someday; and hence the news did not have any impact.
I remember my mother in tears, shedding the ones that she stoically fought during her own times of trial. “What have I passed on to you?”, she bemoaned. “You may have passed on the cancer gene to me mom, but you have also passed on to me the courage to fight it” was my earnest reply.
I was very fortunate to have the love and support of my family as well as my husband’s family during those times. They were my dedicated pillars of support, without whom I could not have withstood this deluge. They were there every single inch of the way, unflinching in their support and ensuring that my spirits did not sag. My aunts, uncles and cousins also banded together to give the vital backing system; being with me while recuperating from surgery and chemo cycles and giving us moral support.
One line, from a small red book titled ‘Wisdom Quotes’ that I had read as a child, has found a permanent home in my mind ever since. The line simple says ‘This too shall pass’. This line is a mantra that helps me through my most trying times and helps keep me grounded in the most chimerical ones. This mantra helped me keep a thoroughly no nonsense attitude in the duration of my treatment. When I was recuperating from my surgery I rigorously caught up on sketching and painting. As soon as I would settle from my chemo cycle, I would resume my work as an architect – designing and going to sites. I would distinctly visualize the end of my treatment and conjure up a very optimistic future immediately after my treatment. That helped me get a sense that these trying times had a limited shelf-life and that ‘they too shall pass’. My master’s studies were long due since I had jumped into practice immediately after my graduation. I also utilized the time during my treatment to prepare for my GRE exams and appeared for the exam immediately after the end of my treatment. I then successfully proceeded for my masters program in the US.
I, my mother and my aunt were by far not the only individuals in our family to be visited by cancer. Cancer runs amok in our family, raising its head every few years. It skipped my maternal grandmother’s generation of 8 siblings; but has made its presence felt in the successive 2 generations. I was the 8th person in the family to be detected with cancer, out of total 12 so far. It is with a heavy heart that I say that cancer has spared only 3 of us, my mother and I being among the fortunate ones. Since cancer is so predominant in our family, we are a part of Tata Memorial Hospital’s ongoing research program on genetic cancer, with about 35 of us family member having agreed to be part of the testing and research. We all feel this research is going to contribute in the understanding of familial cancer and help save lives, and we give our full co-operation.
My mother had a recurrence in the other breast 17 years after her first episode. She fought this with equal fortitude and emerged victorious. I had my second confrontation with cancer 8 years after my first one. Again, we were able to beat it back.
People ask me what is the mantra for dealing with cancer. I believe it is three things – Family, Fearless attitude and Vigilance. The role of the family is most crucial in the successful victory against cancer. Support of the family gives the patient moral strength to battle it out, because cancer is not only a physical combat but a psychological one as well. The support of family in this battle is not to be underestimated.
It is extremely important that everyone should expel from their minds the fear associated with cancer. The survival rate of breast cancer today is 85% and rising. Today there are various means to effectively diagnose and successfully treat breast cancer. If you are vigilant and if the cancer is discovered at an early stage, you could be successfully cured of the disease and live a long and fruitful life. So, imagine cancer to be a disease like any other disease and truly believe that it is curable.
My mother and I were both saved by the fact that we were extremely vigilant about the presence of a lump. And, we acted immediately after discovering its presence. The chances of successfully surviving breast cancer increases with the earliness of detection. Women are used to putting the family and their needs ahead of themselves and neglecting themselves for the family’s sake. Loving and caring for your family does not mean neglecting yourself and not prioritizing your own health. Finally, you can take care of your family better only if you are yourself healthy. And alive.