In 2018, I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. And what a roller coaster it was! From shock to denial to guilt to helplessness to just keeping my eye on the prize — the day my 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 20 rounds of radiation would get over.
I made it through. And here are seven things you should know about breast cancer.
1. When you say the words “breast cancer”, everyone's eyes go to your boobs. No, seriously. The minute I tell people I had breast cancer, their eyes slide down. It's just a quick look. And then I want to square my shoulders and stick my chest out and be like nah nah na na nah... you can't tell because I have nice cleavage and both my boobs are right there.
Which brings me to the fact that I had a mastectomy. Yes, they removed one breast. But I also opted for reconstruction. Much later, my doctor told me less than 4% of women opt for it. I did it because to look at myself in the mirror every morning after a bath and see a jagged line where my breast was, I didn't think I had the strength for it.
2. I'm still scared to do a self-examination. You know how everyone tells you that you should feel your boobs, and check them? That's the correct thing to do. But in reality, it feels hard. What am I looking for? What if I miss something? Sure, there are tonnes of videos on YouTube on how to self-examine yourself, but I can't even find the house keys in my bag, how am I going to find cancerous lumps?
I’ve realised that I'm a wuss. And if I can't do it, I’ll just go to a gynaecologist. I'll get professional help to check my boobs. And if you're like me, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Just go show your boobs every month to a pro.
3. Back to the reconstruction. I can tell most people want to ask me questions about it, but they don't know where to start. So I'm going to do a 101 on what they did to me. They removed all the stuffing from inside my breast, and retained the skin of the breast. Then they took tissue from my back, made a channel all the way to the breast and filled it up with that tissue. For some reason, all this reminds me of Krishi Darshan and drip irrigation. Then they stitched the skin back. Voila! New breast.
The best part is that it's my own tissue, so the body doesn't have any issues with it. The even better part is I still have a breast. Yay!
4. Chemotherapy. That word that sent shivers down my spine. It still does. Here's the thing. If I had bothered to get myself checked earlier, I could have totally avoided it. Heck, if the gynaecologist who I had seen in 2017 had insisted I take a mammogram with a sonogram, I might even have been detected at stage zero. Anyway, that's how the dice rolls. I went through a lot of chemos. And a lot of advice. From eating raw food (dude, I was already getting the shits thanks to the chemo, raw food would have just tipped me over), to seeing a miracle healer who had the cure for cancer (in that case he should also have a Nobel Prize to show me) to covering my bald head with a scarf (Oh really, the world is going to get offended because I am bald and they have to see me. Should I just lock myself in till it's over?)
My point is, chemotherapy as a protocol is necessary when you are at the stage I was, where my lymph nodes had also been affected. The only way to get around this is early detection. And I can't stress that enough. Get your boobs checked every month. If your gynaecologist seems to brush you off, persist, ask questions. Check when you should have a mammogram. Get a second opinion. It's your body, you are the boss.
5. Here’s something most people don't mention. Cancer is expensive. And breast cancer can involve, in some cases, a mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation, a million tests, doctor visits, biopsy, MRI, PET scan... okay, it's a long list. I had medical insurance, and to this date I am so grateful to the universe for that. When I got diagnosed, I was so middle class that the first thing that ran through my brain was 'this is going to cost a lot of money'. And then I remembered I had bought insurance a couple of years back. I'm sure the doctor was wondering why I was grinning for 10 seconds and trying to pat myself on the back.
So yes, I can't talk about breast cancer without telling everyone how important medical insurance is.
6. How did I manage to make it through? Let me tell you, when you get diagnosed, it's like a slap on your face. You realise how much you want to live. And eat ice cream, and walk on a beach and watch Netflix in bed. And once the doctor told me that I was not going to die (yes, I was like ‘please tell me if I'm dying. I'd like to know. I have credit card rewards that I have to use’), then it became about getting better. About my body accepting the chemotherapy, about me accepting the lessons cancer came to teach me. And waiting to heal, from inside and outside.
That doesn't mean I didn't have bad days or I didn't just want to give up and cry. I had so many days like that. But it also meant that there was light at the end of a ridiculously long and dark tunnel.
7. How are you now? A question I get asked a lot. Well, I'm fine. I'm extremely superstitious about this actually. Because once you've had a brush with cancer, you know how fragile that “fine” is.
But with that knowledge comes the desire to make every day count. So, I try to do that. Show up for people. Be nicer. Do more things I love. Don't skip meals. Don't take stress. Laugh a lot. Be around my family and friends. Eat ice cream, walk on the beach and watch Netflix in bed.
‘Cancer, You Picked the Wrong Girl’ has been published by HarperCollins India in November 2021. Buy it here.