By Pallavi Bhattacharya
Contracting a life-threatening disease need not stunt our lives or keep us from achieving our potential. After all, how long we live can never be more important than how well we live
Surubhi is a shy nine-year-old suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She is finally on the road to recovery and is waiting for her hair to grow back so that she can dress up again. Surubhi dreams of growing up to be a doctor.
Poonam Bagai felt her perfect life had been shattered when she was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 38. Mother of two little children, she was overcome with the fear of leaving them orphaned. She plunged into depression and anxiety attacks. As she recovered, Poonam decided to dedicate her life to working with cancer patients.
Brig. S.C. Sharma discovered he had a new war to fight after retirement when he was diagnosed with stomach and oesophagus cancer. To make matters worse, he suffered a cardiac stroke after his first session of chemotherapy. He was declared terminally ill and sent home. But he refused to give up. Says he: “I took my inspiration from Bhishma of the Mahabharata, who was able to chose the time of his death. Why couldn’t I do the same?” Nine years later, he is happy to share his story of survival.
Like Surubhi, Poonam and Brig. Sharma, there are many all over the world who with their courage, medical care and family support, have been able to overcome cancer. There are also those who might have lost the battle, but managed to live meaningful lives in spite of their physical suffering. These people lead us to believe that illness need not stunt our lives or potential. These can be achieved in spite of, and in some cases through, our physical suffering.
Even though we know that we have to face death at some point or another, terminal illness brings it in sharp focus. It is now believed that fear and accompanying emotions like denial, anger and the ‘why me?’ syndrome can hamper our healing process and have a psychosomatic effect on the disease. Confronting fear is then the first step towards dealing with cancer. We can do this by acknowledging the fear, watching and becoming aware of its presence.
Writer-poet Javed Akhtar said at a seminar conducted by Delhi-based Cancer Sahyog: “A person on coming to know he has cancer is overcome with shock and disbelief. This may turn into anger as he wonders what he has done to deserve this. He may be caught in self-pity. It’s easier to come to terms with the ailment if a person understands that the cosmos is not in conspiracy against us.” Adds psychiatrist Monica Chib: “If one’s mind is healthy, one will be able to cope better with the ailment.” This may seem easier said than done but if we look at the life experiences of cancer survivors, we find that many have been able to get better not just through medical care but by strength of will.
Contrary to the orthodox belief that a cancer patient should not be told of the ailment, counsellors now suggest that the family discuss the nature of the illness and its treatment frankly with the patient. The patient’s life is bound to change and he needs to prepare for it psychologically. Santosh Handa, who survived breast cancer, agrees. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, the doctors didn’t even tell me that I would be losing a breast. When I woke up from surgery I was shocked.” Says Poonam Bagai: “Even children should know if they have cancer. They can be told in a non-scary way, for instance through stories of good cells, bad cells and enemies fighting.”
Support from family, friends, and those who have been in a similar situation, is crucial. Caregivers might inadvertently do things that are detrimental for the patient. Says Harmala Gupta, founder of Cancer Sahyog: “People tend to give advice on cures from information they’ve received from word of mouth. Instead, patients should be empathetically listened to. They should not be treated like children and allowed to make their own decisions. This helps build self-esteem. Also, they should not be showered with attention but given their own space. Sitting silently with them will do a whole lot of good. They need to look beyond physical scars and learn to love themselves.” Visiting a counsellor might sensitise caregivers to the kind of care they need to provide. It will also help them cope with the stress of a loved one’s illness.
The second hurdle is choosing and undergoing treatment. Conventional treatment is well known—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. When people say that the treatment of cancer is as bad as the disease, they are referring to side-effects that may involve nausea, diarrhoea and hair loss. The body is depleted of strength and the patient feels weak.
This is why an increasing number of people are looking towards holistic therapies to complement conventional treatment. This is done with the hope of lessening side-effects and enable body, mind and spirit to heal. Says Surubhi Kakkar, whose husband survived colon cancer: “After surgery, the main side-effect was the accumulation of pus. We turned to homoeopathy and the problem was greatly reduced.”
Breast cancer survivor Renuka Prasad says: “During chemotherapy, I drank wheatgrass juice which was rich in minerals and helped detoxify my system. Meditation, reiki and praying also helped.” Kamal Srinivasan, survivor of Hodgkins Lymphoma, says: “I would do yoga and continued doing household work during my illness. I think this was instrumental in reducing side-effects of chemotherapy.”
When 40-year-old Vijay Bhat was diagnosed with colon cancer, he decided to opt for holistic therapy instead of conventional treatment. He tried a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine, holistic diet, herbal medicine and acupuncture. He feels he was able to overcome the disease by making important changes in his lifestyle, like switching to healthy practices and thinking positively. Vijay and his wife now live in Hong Kong, where he works for a leading communications group.
Sabita Chakraborty was diagnosed with third stage Hodgkins Lymphoma at age 80. Her children felt there was no hope when doctors said that she would be unable to withstand chemotherapy. She underwent homoeopathic treatment instead. Now, three years later, her lymph node swellings have disappeared and she leads a normal life.
Renowned writer Louise L. Hay opted for affirmations, visualisation, nutritional cleansing and psychotherapy when diagnosed with vaginal cancer. In six months, she was completely healed. Her book Heal Your Body outlines ways in which we can take our healing in our own hands.
Recovery and healing
Experts agree that holistic therapies may work best when used as complementary to conventional treatment. What is more important is the patient’s ability to remain positive in the face of suffering brought on by the disease. Louise L. Hay advocates affirmations, which she believes help healing by cleansing negative thought patterns.
Even when one has recovered from cancer, one needs to go for regular check-ups. If a relapse does occur, it is best to see it as another mountain to climb. Writer Reeta Dutta Gupta retains her optimism even after being diagnosed with cancer for a second time. “I believe I’ll be able to fight this illness as I had successfully fought the previous one. I leave treating the physical part of my ailment to doctors. I am trying to heal my mind and spirit through prayers, meditation and pranic healing,” she affirms.
Post-cancer, a person seems to see life anew. He might find that he has developed strength of mind, willpower and optimism through his engagement with the disease, which he didn’t have before. These are added to the quiver of life skills that help him handle future crises with greater ease. Many wish to live a more meaningful life and turn to spiritual practices or social work.
Harmala Gupta, a Hodgkins Lymphoma survivor, decided to use her own experience with cancer to benefit others. She founded Cancer Sahyog to take care of the emotional issues of cancer patients. This NGO’s volunteers are mainly cancer survivors who visit hospitals in Delhi, share their coping strategies and offer courage to cancer patients. Cancer Sahyog organises seminars on cancer awareness and offers free or subsidised treatment to needy patients.
Ultimately, whether it is dealing with cancer or life in general, it is the individual’s ability to face and accept reality, and live in it as consciously and gently as one can, that really matters. The journey, after all, is the destination; and perhaps how we live is a more profound experience than how long we live. As Treya Killam Wilber, who succumbed to cancer after living with it for five years, says in the book Grace and Grit: “Because I can no longer ignore death, I pay more attention to life.”
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