India: Getting Back The Sunshine: Neerja Chowdhury, Cancer Survivor, In Her Own Words






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Publication: Women's Feature Service
Date published: November 8, 2010

(Excerpted from Hope Soars; Edited by Jyotsna Govil; Published by Vitasta and Indian Cancer Society, Delhi; Price: Rs 395; Pp: 214)

New Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - 'Cancer' is one of those words which arouse a sense of dread and virtually half kills the patient. I knew this only too well, having lost my mother and younger brother to it.

It goes without saying that what helps a cancer patient cope with the disease is the system of support that comes into play and this includes family, friends, colleagues at work place, and ... the medical community. I was particularly lucky in having doctors who were easily accessible, and patiently answered the questions on my mind.

I was fortunate in having a family who behaved normally. Otherwise, cancer can descend like a cloud over the family, infecting its spirit and functioning in a myriad ways.

Cancer brought home to me the knowledge - once again - on who my real friends were. It was providential that [my friend] Nyanam decided to come and see me when she did, or I might not have got myself checked out for several more weeks.

What also helped me cope was to go to work as usual, to write, to break stories as a journalist, to meet people, to push myself to keep a daily routine despite the listlessness which would often invade my body after the chemo injections. Sometimes, when I had a good story but was feeling tired and tempted to give up, in the office in the evening, my colleagues would say encouragingly, "Just push it out somehow, and we will take care of cleaning up the copy."

When I look back now, to grit my teeth and decide to keep an appointment with a politician the day I had collected the report confirming my malignancy, was the first step towards treating the disease as no more than a blip.

Surgery was not difficult, radiotherapy was bearable, and it was useful to be told - though not by a doctor - that it would help to drink a whole bottle of water, even before I emerged out of the hospital, after a session of radiotherapy. The six cycles of chemotherapy, however, were a challenge. After the second injection, I came down with fever, cold, cough and bouts of vomiting. Whenever I would lie down, I would choke. I was petrified of lying down to sleep at night, lest I choke. So I would remain in the sitting position. My oncologist decided to reduce the quantum of medicine and increased it gradually over the next four cycles so that my body could take it.

I had expected nausea to hit me the first day, but it did not. These days, they manage it with drugs. The effect of the first cycle lasted two days, and that of the last one, a whole week. I would know the effect was wearing off when strangely the sunshine outside did not look a tinselly, brittle yellow colour.

I had been mentally ready for the loss of hair that would follow chemotherapy. But actually when it started to happen, and shocks of hair started to come off, I was really not prepared for it. I would be afraid to brush my hair, for large tufts would come off in my hands and stick to my sweaters. But mercifully, when the hair grew back again after the treatment was over, it was a thicker growth, with a greater bounce. And I could opt for a new style!

After my hair loss, a friend of mine based in London sent me a wig, which she got specially crafted for me (using my photograph), thinking it would help me look and feel 'normal'. But it was uncomfortable to wear in hot weather and it was just not me. So I took to wearing scarves on my head. But this meant a volley of questions which I had to answer. Most people took it in a normal, natural way; only a few gave me the "bechari" look. Some journalist friends of mine naively thought I was trying to identify with Kashmiri women, when I went to Srinagar to write about the 2002 elections there!

Through the difficult moments, what helped was to keep reminding myself that the treatment and its after effects would be behind me soon. At AIIMS, where I went for the first two rounds of chemotherapy, there was a poster hanging on the wall with the words, "Do not forget, this too will pass." It did.

Of course, the checkups continue even when the disease is behind you, first every six months, and then every year. Those moments of waiting for the reports is like dying a thousand deaths, not knowing what they would yield.

I found the bone scans to be particularly trying. As the body entered the tunnel shaped machine and the top half was lowered over the face, despite the soft background music that accompanies the test in some hospitals, or the silent chanting of my own prayers. I used to feel as if my pounding heart would leap out of my body. Of course, the panic would subside as the machine moved away from the face to the rest of the body.

One of the things I decided early on was that I would not ask myself the question: "Why me?" For there was no answer to that question. Once that decision was made, there was an acceptance of the disease, and with it came a sense of peace...

This may be a strange thing to say. In some ways, cancer came like a wake up call for me, and gave me a new lease of life. I had been merely coping with life as a journalist in a highly competitive profession, synthesizing multiple responsibilities in what was a tight rope walk. Sometimes life used to be so hectic that the moments I would savour the most were at the traffic intersections, as I waited in my car for the red light to change on a winter day with warm sunshine streaming in, because those moments belonged to me.

Because cancer brings you so close to the possibility of death, you begin to sift the grain from the chaff, about what is important and what is not, with the realization somewhere at the back of your mind that the clock might be ticking away.

It was during one of those reflective moments one night that I decided that I must let go of the pas burdens - the hurts and resentments - that had dogged my steps. It was almost like watching the baggage drift away.

My friends told me I began to look more alive. My colleagues told me I was more prolific in the year of my treatment than in the previous years. It would be wrong to say that cancer is a small happening. But it is easier to handle it, as I found, if you can accord it the import of "only a hiccup in the journey of life."

( Women's Feature Service)

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