Tag Archives: cancer

Immortality

A few days back someone I don’t know passed away from cancer. Someone I have heard of, whose illness and struggle I have followed from a distance. She was a much-loved person. A strong girl. A determined girl. And she was merely 26-years-old.

Youth can move us into the arms of a frightfully beautiful mirage — of immortality. Nothing can touch us. Nothing is impossible. Nothing out of reach. Our energy, vitality, sexuality, beauty, youth always seem impossibly long-lived — far into the future we cannot see but believe we can comprehend. The reminder of how fleeting life really is, is then humbling, and empowering.

The infidelity of time doesn’t leave you with the luxury of pretences and laboured fears.

From what I have read, the girl who passed away, for no lack of strength or fight, was just 26 — three years younger than me. I feel inexplicably fortunate that I have lived this long, had these many more days with those I love. And immeasurably ashamed that I have nothing much to show for it.

A loss of life, such a precious life, is a travesty. Rest in peace, dear girl. I have much to learn from you.

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Not such a hair-raising story

It has been a while since I last updated this rather hesitant journal – going against my earlier resolve to be regular. I wonder who is reading this. But if you are one of those few who have logged on to read I can only apologise profusely. Getting back to life after a long pause sometimes takes more work than I’d imagined.

This time last year I resembled, pretty closely, the grim unsmiling smiley, albeit a brown one, that we use unabashedly in our favourite mode of human interaction – instant messages.

Do you recall that clichéd clumps-of-hair in the shower scene in horror movies of a certain kind? I am willing to bet that a cancer patient came up with that.

The sight of a bald head is possibly one most associated with cancer. The loss of hair, then, isn’t just about losing that symbol of vanity – it is about the fear of being perceived in a certain way by others.

Three weeks or so after the start of her chemotherapy a friend I met online on a cancer support group sent a distraught message – “I don’t want to continue the treatment.”

While she knew about the impending hair loss, and felt she was ready (like most of us), the reality of a scalp permanently in pain, of leaving trails of hair around the house like Hansels bread crumbs, the well-meant advice on how to deal with the loss (shave versus don’t shave camps), were all too much for her. The emotional impact of this cosmetic after-effect is often, unfortunately, ignored.

Going bald – I mean actually taking a razor to my head to shave it all off without waiting for them to go in due course of time, was about asserting some control at a time when nothing else was. The relief from the scalp pain was just an added bonus.

But really, in a way it was liberating. I liked being bald (at least until I lost my eyebrows!). If you think about it it’s a tick on the bad-girl list – such as having a tattoo, getting piercings, et al.

However, of all the agonies of cancer, losing my eyebrows was probably the most heart-wrenching and the only one I still remember clearly. Really, I am quite convinced we underestimate the vast importance of eyebrows.

It’s all that holds our face together and keeps us from looking like a ‘Kree’. Forget eyes as the windows to our soul – it’s the eyebrows that truly matter.  Pictures illustrating  the point will soon be updated, I promise.

If you have a friend or family member about to go through chemo, let them handle it the way they want. If they want to have a ‘bald and beautiful’ party, make sure you get the cake. It is possibly the only way they get to assert some control at a time when one feels like their body has been invaded. Get them a wig if they want. If they don’t, take them out for dinner in their fabulous new no-hair-do.

At the end of it watching them grow back when you are better kind of makes up for it. And if, like me, you are living in a tropical land of sweaty horror sometimes you even miss the feeling of the wind on your gloriously bare scalp.

The C word: Mutations galore

I have always imagined what it would be like to be a superhero. I have weighed and re-thought a number of super powers that I’d like to have. I’ve argued that maybe, just maybe there really are some mutants in our midst. And that maybe my mutations are simply showing a late growth spurt and one day would flourish. Yes, laugh all you will but it’s true, even today at the ripe old age of 28.

The thing is I was right! I do have a mutation after all. My mother (who laughed so much about by love for superpower-causing mutations. Ha!), one of my two sisters and I have a mutation – that of the gene MSH2.

It is one of the many mutations that cause…cancer. Oh no! Really. I mean, truly, really, seriously! It is a mutation that can cause HNPCC or Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colorectal Cancers. All my belief in mutations and mutants and I get gifted with a potential bomb in the poop-pipe? Blaaargh! What-an-anti-climax.

And it gets better. The name, which implicates my colon, is misleading. I mean, it stores crap, a shit-storm there would just be ironic. But no, in another woman’s words “my baby box set me up!”. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year, it has truly been a year of learning. (Much of it has to do with the absolute, eternal and unquestionable importance of eyebrows. But more on that later.)

ovarian

Coming back to serious issues, such as, you know, not dying. I have been part of a group on  Facebook of women suffering ovarian cancer. And the shocking fact is most were diagnosed late. Have been suffering for years.

 

There is a shocking lack of awareness about this insidious disease as compared to our other more ‘glamorous’ sister — breast cancer.

Figures available publicly with the American Cancer Society show that as of August 2015, 198 grants were made for research involving breast cancer, with total funded amount standing at over $110 million. The total grants for ovarian cancer, however, were at a relatively lower 46, with total funded amount standing at $26 million.

It is estimated that in the US more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, and over 14,000 will succumb to it in the year. That’s a strike rate of over 63 per cent.

On the other hand, over 246,000 breast cancer cases are likely to be diagnosed and more than 40,000 women may lose their lives to it. That’s about 16 per cent.

Now, I am not trying to minimise the suffering of any cancer patient. Just a few sentences earlier I called breast cancer our more “glamorous” sister, just for the high amount of coverage it gets, and justly so. The sheer numbers makes it more visible, more troublesome and as a result also gains more research interest.

But just going by numbers ovarian cancer is more deadly. Its fatality is linked to the fact that it is an unusually silent disease with symptoms as vague as ‘exhaustion’. So, ladies, be alert if you feel a loss of appetite, feeling bloated, are suffering abdominal pains that are masquerading as gastritis, and start needing to pee too often.

And, just in case anyone was wondering, I am waiting on my invisibility to kick in. A little bit of the ability to teleport too, you know. And a touch of telepathy wouldn’t hurt… just because.

Don’t pit depression against cancer

Just now I saw this video on Upworthy about how one would never put down a person with cancer. Never say they were dragging others down. Never call a cancer patient’s problems an unending series of “pity parties”. Then why do people do that with a person suffering depression.

A beautiful, meaningful video dealing with an important subject. Yet, somehow, it left me slightly agitated. You see, I was diagnosed with cancer around this time last year. And I have spent months weighing every word I said, sometimes even actions and gestures, afraid someone would think I was making everything about me.

The fact is anyone suffering any long-term disease probably suffers such anxiety, may be because in some ways or the other our society lacks time and space for such people.

But more than that there is an odd sense of guilt associated with getting cancer.

A well-meaning acquaintance on meeting me during the course of my treatment told me, “When I heard you got cancer I thought it must be lung cancer. After all, you smoked.” Yes, I did. And no I didn’t get lung cancer. Further, my cancer had nothing to do with smoking. It was found to be caused by a genetic mutation.

Another acquaintance, on being told about the mutation, which comes down from my mother, a woman who has led an excruciatingly simple life, said, “Cancer doesn’t work like that. It is not a hereditary disease.” I found myself shrinking a little from the lady’s tone and tenor.

I count myself among one of the most blessed people, given the completely beautiful people who surround me. A boyfriend who stood by me like a rock, made me feel beautiful at a time when I avoided looking at the mirror as much as possible. A mother who pulled herself out of depression to take care of me. Two sisters whose strength I could feel through the miles shortened by Skype. A father who was just there, simply there for anything and everything. Friends who would pop up ‘just because’.

Yet, I know of others who weren’t as fortunate. Whose boyfriends left them in the middle of chemo because ‘it was too stressful’. Whose friends avoided them. Whose husbands and wives left them because ‘they weren’t attracted to them anymore’. Parents who felt they couldn’t live their lives around cancer patients. Siblings who thought they were taking up al; the attention.

There is an unsaid pressure on cancer patients to be “normal”. If anyone could tell me what normal is I would be grateful. I have seen colleagues ho and hum about how ill they were with flu. And here I was trying to make puns about being two-paet (stomach) after the first mid-line surgery gave me a scar right down the centre of my abdomen; about starting my ‘bald chronicles’; about taking stairs like an old person. Laughing about living with cancer seemed to be the only defense mechanism I had. But, by jove, none of should feel the need to be defensive. It is hard enough otherwise.

Depression is real. It is scary. I have seen someone very close suffering and spiraling into that abyss. It was perhaps the most helpless I have ever felt. But don’t compare it to another disease in the misguided idea that ‘one doesn’t talk like that to a cancer patient’. Because they do. Don’t belittle the struggles faced by everyone else, because truth is while most people are just wonderful, the ones who aren’t don’t step down their game for anyone.