It has been 13 years since my family’s first encounter with cancer. Although it was my mom who was diagnosed with the disease, the entire family was in shock. As a 17 year old student, I knew cancer exactly as it was portrayed in Bollywood movies – a fatal disease that would kill my mom eventually. However, the events that followed changed my perspective about life and strengthened my resolve to fight this insidious disease.
My mom, an officer with the Reserve Bank of India back then, was as ignorant about her health as any other Indian woman is. Her breast cancer was diagnosed during one of the mandatory health check-ups conducted by her employer. Looking back this was the turning point. As a clinical research professional now, who has worked in several cancer studies, I have realized that half the battle is won if the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage. At that time, we had no clue on how to proceed. I remember constantly persuading her to tell me what was going on in her mind. I would reassure her that she would be better one day. But I knew in my heart that she felt lonely and her confidence was waning with each passing day. Perhaps enrolling her in a support group or better awareness of the disease would have helped her to cope with the disease better.
Surgery and Treatment:
Another crucial factor was our general physician’s involvement, guidance and counselling. He along with other surgical and medical oncologists decided that my mom will undergo surgery followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. My mom underwent surgical removal of the affected breast and the other treatment modalities. By the end of the last chemo cycle, my mom’s immunity started to give way and in the weeks to follow the side effects were at their worst. Soon my mom would throw up at the slightest odour, her nails and veins had turned black to the extent that I could follow the vein right from her forearm to her fingers, and she was balding and would develop a cold or fever at the drop of a hat. The doctors surprisingly maintained that the surgery was successful and that the chemo would soon begin to work. We could only see the dark side of cancer, the one with the side effects and social stigma associated with removal of a breast and hair loss for a woman. I realized that my mom was going in to a shell but I was determined to not quit trying for my mom’s health and happiness.
Overcoming the Side Effects:
As her informal caregivers, my dad and I decided to tackle each problem as it came.
The most important one was alopecia. My mom had beautiful hair before the cancer struck. When she began losing patches of hair each day, it would simply chip away at her heart. We decided to get her an artificial wig so that she could confidently go out of the house. The next thing was to get her a silicone artificial breast. A woman’s breasts are her most intimate assets and I could only imagine how self-conscious she was feeling without one. A relative working in Tata Memorial Centre arranged for the wig and silicone breast. These were our initial victories in the war against cancer.
My mom had been a working woman all her life. She found the long leave for her illness maddening and it was a challenge for us to keep her engaged in some activity that she liked. We had to find an activity that would not exert any physical or emotional discomfort yet would keep her occupied while we were away. Thankfully, my mom turned to her favourite hobby – reading. Initially she would read to keep her mind off the stress. For the longest time I remember her reading this fat novel ‘Mahanayak’ with Netaji Subhashchandra Bose’s picture on the cover page. As time passed, I realized that the books she read gave her strength and determination to fight her cancer.
The other side effects were easier to overcome. In order that my mom remains away from all obnoxious smells and sights, we decided to hire house helps for cooking and cleaning.
We have surmounted each day to reach weeks, months and now years. My mom is in complete remission and leading a healthy and happy life. While various high tech treatments and concocted medicines have helped my mom to conquer her cancer, it was the love and comfort of her near ones that actually mattered. As her informal caregiver, my biggest contribution during these difficult times was my persuasion, advice, humour and sometimes my silent presence. Our encounter with cancer taught me that we must continue to stand by those we love and care about their inner beauty and not the short-lived external one. Most importantly, I learnt that no matter what; never ever give up on life; and that miracles happen.
Shilpa Patkar is the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, working as a Clinical Research Professional in Mumbai for the last 10 years.
Also published on Medium.