From knowing one is suffering, to coming to terms with it, undergoing treatment and finally getting one’s life back on track — the road to recovery is anything but easy for a cancer patient. While complete cure is still unknown, new therapies are emerging which is giving greater hope to those who are battling the disease. Hollywood celebrities like Hugh Jackman, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, and Bollywood artists like Manisha Koirala, Lisa Ray and Anurag Basu, and cricketer Yuvraj Singh, who have battled cancer, are also inspiring others to wage their battle and never give up. On World Cancer Day today (February 4), we speak to cancer survivors to know their stories, and how they are spreading awareness and bringing attention to the disease.
Spreading awareness through songs
The No Shave November or Movember movement has managed to create awareness about prostate cancer in urban spaces, but in rural areas there is still shame attached to it because of ignorance.
Jharkhand-based teacher Shishir Jha, who suffered from prostate cancer between 2006-08, has made it his motto to shake off any inhibition associated with the disease. He educates young boys and men of Dhanbad about the ailment. Prostate cancer affects the prostate gland — a part in the male reproductive system which produces some of the fluid in semen, and also plays a role in urine control.
Jha grew up with a dream of becoming a folk singer but since his father didn’t approve of his choice of career, he gave up on his dreams. Now, for the past decade, the Hindi teacher has been using his voice and writing songs to talk about the symptoms, treatment and other related precautions that prostate cancer patients must take. “It is embarrassing when you have prostate cancer because not only do you feel the constant urge to pass urine, but it also affects your sex life. There were times when I urinated in my pants while teaching and kids burst out laughing. I was diagnosed at an advanced stage, so I had no option left other than prostatectomy. After the surgery, it took a great deal to lead a normal life. But I am glad, I am living,” says he.
A lot of men feel ashamed to talk about their problems when the early signs of prostate cancer surface, leading to severe issues and death in certain cases. The 56-year-old Jha says that talking about the problems can make a difference. “While my wife encourages women to be supportive of their husbands suffering from prostate cancer, I conduct sessions where I openly talk about the disease. At times, I do organise sangeet programmes and spread the message through music and song. This way, I am not only educating others but also fulfilling my dream of being a singer!”says Jha with a broad smile.
Keeping a positive attitude is key
A former St Mary’s School teacher Zia Chaney is full of life and her smile is contagious. And her indefatigable spirit makes her pick up the pieces and overcome any challenge. So in 2010 when she discovered that she had lumps in her breast, initially she did feel the shock but soon got her life back on track. Back then, Chaney was 39, healthy, worked out regularly and had no other ailment. “So when the doctor confirmed that the lumps were malignant, I was in shock. But I was told it was the early stage of breast cancer, so the treatment would be 100 per cent effective. That gave me some solace,” says Chaney who is a mother of two and a runner.
Last year, her cancer made a comeback, however, she is positive and determined to win it all over again. “I fought it once and I know I can do it again,” says Chaney for whom her husband, children and friends are her constant source of encouragement. However, she says that at the end of the day, it’s you who has to work at it. She works out a little everyday, does meditation and Reiki and all this keeps her determined to fight her battle.
“When I was first detected with cancer, I maintained as much normalcy in my day-to-day activities as possible. I met my friends when I could, went for walks and proudly displayed my bald head. I kept busy with my children and their lives. During the two bouts of cancer, I have managed to keep fit. I run a couple of kilometres three times a week. I have to keep physically fit so that I can withstand the chemotherapy,” she says.
Ask her how running helps her overcome the trauma and push her to achieve her goals and she says, “I trained hard and ran my first full marathon of 42 km in Mumbai in 2012 to mark my victory over cancer. Since then running has become a passion. I have completed six full marathons in India and abroad. I love the discipline of training and the sense of achievement after a race. I feel confident, powerful and in many ways it defines the kind of person I am and not a quitter,” shares Chaney who says that she has learnt a lot about herself through fighting cancer and running.
“I didn’t realise I was so brave and strong to be able to overcome adversities. Life-threatening diseases usually bring that out in people. You think you can’t get through it, but you do,” asserts Chaney who says that one can also cry if one wants to while dealing with such a critical ailment. “One can’t be strong all the time. We need time to grieve and feel sorry for ourselves. But after that, pick up yourself because there’s no one else who can heal you better and faster than you yourself. Keeping a positive attitude is the key. Don’t give up. Keep telling yourself you are already better and free from the cancer. Spend time with people you love. Read happy books. Listen to music. Eat healthy. Do things you enjoy. Feel good about yourself and the healing will happen naturally,” says Chaney to all those who are fighting cancer.
No need to follow the dos and don’ts
City-based gynaecologist and astrologer Dr Vishaka Mishra has a childlike smile and an undying zest for life. And it is hard to believe that she is a cancer survivor, 50 years of age and a mother of triplets.
In 2003, Mishra suffered from blood cancer and having a rare blood group type, O negative, made things even more difficult for her. “For my condition, constant blood transfusion was required. However, chemotherapy and high dose of drugs had adverse effect on my heath and immunity. I used to bleed for three months as if I was menstruating. Even today, my immunity is low and every time I fall ill, it takes me longer to recover,” says Mishra adding that she is fortunate that her ailment was detected early and helped her survive.
Mishra has been doing everything that she loves, despite people telling her to take rest. An avid traveller and a sportsperson, she found solace in globetrotting. “While I was still undergoing treatment, I extensively travelled across India and abroad. I did lose hair and my weight increased from 55 to 85 kg, but that didn’t stop me from following my passion. I met so many people from various cultures and knowing their stories was like an elixir for me. I also met cricketer Yuvraj Singh, Manisha Koirala and Lisa Ray who have been cancer survivors. This made me more positive. During this entire period, I kept doing boxing which makes me happy and read the Quran (since my mother is from Iran) which gives me peace. You need to keep doing things that make you happy and positive. People will give you a list of dos and don’ts but you need to strengthen your willpower and take up activities that keep you rejuvenated,” she says.
Currently, she is not just boxing, but also travelling to the remotest places in India and pursuing astrology. “I have been an astrologer for the past 41 years and travel lets me meet new people. Right now, I am visiting small villages which are filled with stories. The beauty of travelling is that it heals and soothes your mind and helps you connect with yourself in a much better way,”
Remember you are not alone
Her philosophy of life is to not get bogged down when dealing with adversities but to sail through them while keeping faith in god and herself. “Battling cancer and emerging victorious is a daunting process. You go through tremendous physical and emotional upheavals, but you need to keep going,” says Reena Chatterjee, 55 who suffered from breast cancer a couple of years ago.
What started as a small lump in her right breast was diagnosed as Triple Negative Cancer (TNC) followed by a series of therapies and finally a surgery in 2013-14. Chatterjee, who hails from West Bengal and is currently living in Bengaluru, says that initially she was clueless about what she was going through as her daughter didn’t disclose it to her.
“Later, when I finally got to know about my ailment, it did hit me hard, but I was determined that I won’t break down and throughout the course of my treatment, I continued to do household chores and tried to lead a normal life because it is important to push yourself everyday, every moment,” says Chatterjee who is now motivating and encouraging others to be brave while battling cancer, and is helping the underprivileged by creating awareness, providing medicines and helping financially.
Chatterjee’s family has been very supportive and helped her tide over the difficult times. “My daughter has been a great support, but I didn’t involve my son as he was too young and at a crucial stage of his education. But yes, it did affect us in the beginning when our relatives, barring a few, stopped visiting us, let alone helping, thinking that cancer was contagious and they too would be infected! But I knew I wanted to live and that kept me going,” says she.
She says that before she was operated upon, she had to undergo painful chemotherapy which drained her not just physically but also emotionally. “I started losing hair, my skin got burnt and I turned completely dark. This shattered my confidence but the painful journey was my path to recovery. I knew I was going to lose a breast, and for a woman it is a big setback, but I accepted that only mastectomy could save my life,” she says.
During her treatment at a hospital in Mumbai, her fears and insecurities disappeared when she met other patients who were suffering from cancer. “Remember that you are not alone. There are hundreds of people who are waging their wars against the disease. I saw kids, as small as three-to four-year-olds, suffering from blood cancer but they were smiling which gave me strength and made me forget my own pain,” says Chatterjee adding, “My doors and arms are always open for cancer patients who need aid. I am also planning to join hands with NGOs to help them.”