Cancer and My Life The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Woman
This story is about a cancer survivor. On World Cancer Day, I would like to share a critical perspective, understanding the relationship between my experience battling cancer, finding an appropriate medical procedure, and my changing position in the social structure of society in which I live. More than any other factor in my life, this disease and its ramifications made me realize that as a patient, I experienced not only institutional inequalities, gender bias, but also a gradual decline in my social position. . In this disease journey, the experience of shock, extreme pain during treatment then gave way to self-awareness.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 46 as I climbed the ladder of success and for the first time in my life, I gradually became financially secure and probably happy. Life has always been hard for me and everything I have achieved has been with great difficulty and overcoming many problems. I had decided a long time ago that I wanted to be a career woman and I found my vocation in research and higher education in the discipline of history after dreaming of becoming a great sportswoman because I was Delhi State champion in high jump for a painter when I received the award at the Shanker International Painting Competition. My parents opposed my higher studies because it involved long years of struggle, but I was convinced that it was my vocation in life. Once the decision was made, I quickly realized that if higher education helps to broaden your intellectual horizons but does not provide you with decent living conditions. Losing my father early in life meant an economic downturn and further compounded by years of struggling to find a job at Delhi University. I had the strength to end the marriage before it destroyed my life. I chose to ignore societal norms and immersed myself in research and did my PhD. I have obtained numerous national and international scholarships, including minor research grants from university granting commissions, Canadian Shastri-Indo and Fulbright doctoral scholarships. I was starting to be recognized both nationally and internationally and at least my professional life was improving.
Then I discovered a lump in my right breast. For some reason I knew it was cancerous. My mother had a benign lump in her left breast when she was 82 and I was in the high risk category due to my age and childlessness. The fine needle tests confirmed what I already suspected and thus began my long journey of treatment, hospital visits and rounds of chemotherapy followed by radiation. My operation took place in a private hospital but the phenomenal expense involved in saving my life forced me to move from a private to a public hospital and now AIIMS has become my second home. In the process, I also began to realize that the economic cost of my illness was gradually driving me to the brink of bankruptcy.
I opted for the radical mastectomy and I have to admit here that in an increasingly commercialized world where body and self-image has become a commodity, I was also not immune to the loss of an organ associated with my gender and my sexuality. I vividly remember going through different stages of grief, frustration, restlessness, and then acceptance. Initially, I went through the period of mourning by asking questions of God, why me? Haven’t I suffered enough and never had answers. People have asked me why I hadn’t detected this mass earlier; they questioned my lifestyle and some blamed my single status. Then there were those who started patronizing me what to eat, which God to pray to, stay away from people, stop teaching without ever asking me how I could afford this expensive treatment if I stopped working? All these human emotions and questions occupied my mind and generated even more turmoil and grief. I gradually began to realize that when a life-threatening disease strikes in one’s life, that individual’s social life is completely disrupted. I also realized that I was gradually becoming dysfunctional to the people around me and isolating myself.
This was followed by a period of complete silence and gradual acceptance of this disease and my gradual dissociation with the people who told me that in case I needed their help I should call them but they never visited me once. I became such an outsider that one of my colleagues told me not to tell others about my illness because I would become a social pariah.
I had very little control over the medical treatment process and when I was taken to the operating room I prayed to God to kill me. But this wish was not granted. I was well aware of the fact that the severity of my illness made the possibility of a complete cure not only remote, a mirage but also a very complex process that I constantly had to grapple with throughout my treatment.
I thought the post-operative pain was enough. Imagine yourself lying in intensive care and aware that some patients around you are dying and their bodies are being removed. I wanted to scream get me out of this hell but neither my brain nor my body obeyed my commands. There were times when I thought I was dead and the pain running through my body was the process of leaving this world. Strange I would have preferred death rather than endure the pain I was going through! Post-operative pain is not hell if you haven’t experienced what chemotherapy can do to your body. How can I describe it in words, it’s like billions of ants are injected into your system all at once and they want to bite you? My first rounds of chemotherapy were just as horrendous. I felt almost all the side effects. It all started to smell like a chemo drug. I remember my friends urging me to take a teaspoon of glucose to survive and patiently sitting on my bed to trick me into eating or helping me run to the bathroom or just massaging me to calm me down. I started losing hair in the second round of chemo and that made me walk to the hair salon and get my head shaved. I came out bald! I was now, in the words of a friend, an enlightened Buddha!
I had to switch to a new chemotherapy drug which was expensive but with fewer side effects. I received three cycles of this new therapy, each cycle consisted of three cycles of chemotherapy. Radiation therapy was a simple procedure and only scarred my skin, but by then I was already a different person. I never bought a wig or tried to hide what I was going through from the world. During chemo sessions, I corrected my students’ response scripts or filled out numerous medical reimbursement forms and submitted them later. I would drive to the hospital and then drive home to support my brother who was busy caring for my mother who, due to her advanced age, had to be hospitalized quite frequently.
Before cancer I was considered single, divorced and outspoken and now I was a cancer patient. At this point, I began to observe the reactions of those around me to my illness and to find expected and sometimes shocking variations. There were so-called friends and relatives who inquired about my well-being via email but never called me. Some friendships just ended because they never thought I would survive this disease or worse might apply for financial assistance and what if I die without paying them back? The Income Tax Department sent me a notice questioning the movement of large sums of money to and from my bank account far beyond my income levels! Then there were friends who put money under my pillow and to this day I don’t know who kept that money. True angels come in this form. How did I react to these extreme emotions and behaviors? I initially went into shell, which was the easiest thing to do anyway, but gradually I’m starting to realize that this disease has given me a window to understand myself and the world around me. ‘surrounded.
The financial costs of the treatment were monumental. I was buying medicines in thousands of rupees, way beyond my income at the time, I was also paying a house loan. Thus, between my illness and my financial situation, the only recourse I had left was to take a minimum leave and obtain the full salary. Therefore, I only took three days off when I was given chemo. I forced my body and mind to obey my commands and walked into the classroom to teach after sessions that later proved therapeutic in my recovery. I also had to continue my household responsibilities, caring for my sick mother who took her to the hospital countless times. The doctors treating me were also against taking a long sick leave because they never wanted my physical condition to affect my mental health. One said, “Work hard not to focus on cancer, if you survive another beautiful life awaits you. At that time, I found his words funny because during those months of treatment, I could barely see life beyond one day and even less into the future!
What have I gained from my long treatment? It doesn’t matter who supports you or abandons you, what matters is how you will face the world. I accepted my illness and told myself that God wanted me to become a better person in the process. I no longer get involved in unnecessary arguments, ego I try to keep it at bay, and I’ve become quieter and a bit withdrawn from the world. I work at my own pace, continue to follow my spiritual world, teach, walk and enjoy nature.
I learned that I had to be gentle with myself and use humor in difficult times. I shouldn’t let crisis rule my life. I started living in the present moment and not in the past or the future. I now believe strongly in the power of healing based on honesty with myself and with others. I learned to respect myself and to be more focused.
Archana lives in Delhi where she works and in Goa which she loves and where she will eventually move.
-Dr Archana Ojha
Kamala Nehru College