If you are a woman and grew up in India, chances are you have a pretty complicated relationship with your breasts. From a young age we are conditioned to feel embarrassed and ashamed by our breasts.
Squashed into training bras well before puberty hits, hiding them from public view soon becomes such a preoccupation that well into adulthood, safety pins, scarves and ‘dupattas’ remain indispensable wardrobe essentials.
Far from being a functional part of the human body, breasts are overly sexualised, to the point that we forget that breasts are susceptible to disease just like any other part of the body.
October is breast cancer awareness month, bringing attention to a disease that is now the leading cancer affecting women in India, with an estimated 1.4 lakh new cases detected annually. Like many women, I’ve been oblivious to this fact.
To be fair, I’ve seen the advertisements, heard about the pink ribbon movement and read the odd post that goes: “If you know someone who has been affected by breast cancer, please share this link”, but honestly I’ve rarely given breast cancer a second thought. I mean who gets it at my age anyway right! Right?
When I was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
35 years, 8 months and 7 days – that’s exactly how old I was the day a doctor told me that I had breast cancer. To cut a long story short, in November last year I felt a lump in my breast, but an ultrasound and mammogram at the time seemed to indicate that there was nothing to worry about.
Still, I couldn’t shake off a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right.
I went back to my doctor in June this year, got another round of tests and criminally long biopsy needles stuck into me, and within a few days the results revealed – Stage 2, triple negative, metaplastic carcinoma.
Just like that. To say the news was earth-shattering would be an understatement.
Within a couple of days of being diagnosed, I walked into a 6 hour-long surgery. I faked my way through that day, masking my fear listening to the soundtrack of ‘Wonder Woman’ and imagining a battalion of helmeted and heavily armed white blood cells engaging in an epic battle with the tumour (in my defence, I have a very active imagination).
When I woke from surgery, I naively asked my surgeon if I was cancer free. No such luck! Since cancer is essentially a case of healthy cells gone rogue, doctors have no way of knowing where they may have wandered off looking for another cozy home to take up residence.
Turns out surgery was just the first step, what I had to look forward to was far more daunting…chemo!
Chemotherapy involves the use of specific drugs that work to stop the growth of rapidly dividing cells in the body.
Sounds good so far but there’s a catch, because there is no way for the drugs to distinguish good cells from bad cancer cells, the drugs have a whole bunch of nasty side effects.
Forearmed with a diary full of questions, my first meeting with an oncologist went something like this.
I asked about the side effects of chemotherapy and he proceeded to draw a little stick figure (complete with smiley face) and rattled off a range of possible side effects: hair loss, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, mouth sores, constipation, fatigue, muscle pain, infertility, menopause, mood swings etc.
I was, however, assured that not everyone experienced the same side effects or to the same degree. Full of false bravado, I convinced myself that I would be one of those badass women who would just knock chemo out of the park.
As they say, ignorance is bliss!
My first couple of chemo sessions involved a drug named the “Red Devil”, on account of the fact that it is red in colour, super toxic and just plain nasty.
During my first round with the Red Devil, a nurse helpfully told me to alert her if I experienced any signs of an allergic reaction i.e. severe vomiting, rashes or difficulty in breathing. If that isn’t enough to induce a panic attack, I’m not sure what is.
Thankfully, I experienced none of those immediate side effects but an enduring fear of the red devil now remains!
Living With Breast Cancer
I’ve been through 8 cycles of chemo so far, with another 8 to go. If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that chemo is just as freaking awful as they say it is.
In addition to losing all my hair – a fact my 4-year-old finds very amusing – there have been days when I haven’t been able to eat, sleep or even get out of bed; days when the simplest tasks seemed impossible because of the pain and physical discomfort from constant nausea and fatigue, and then dark days when all I could do was curl up in a ball and cry.
But as with most things in life, you adapt and get used to it with the passage of time, as much as you can get used to being infused with drugs that are so toxic that they come with a statutory warning (no kidding!).
The routine of hospital visits, blood tests, injections set in and you learn to accept that no matter how sick you feel or how ill the medicines make you, you have to keep your eyes on the prize and continue with treatment.
Personally, I can’t wait for my last chemo session. Of course, I still have the joys of radiation to look forward to, but progress is still progress!
It has been nearly three months since my surgery and some days it is still hard to believe this is really happening.
My breast cancer diagnosis hit my family and me like a tsunami.
In the weeks immediately after, I kept asking anyone who would care to listen…why me? I’m young, healthy, physically fit and don’t smoke, what did I do wrong? But the truth is, it isn’t just me.
Breast cancer is fast emerging as one of the leading public health risks for women in India. The doctors and surgeons, I’ve met describe it as an epidemic or virus.
More and more women in India are being diagnosed with breast cancer in their late 20s, early 30s and 40s – far earlier than expected.
Some of the reading I’ve done ascribe the rising incidence to increased urbanisation, westernisation of diets, lack of exercise and environmental pollution.
While I will never really know the reason why, during treatment I’ve met many women like me. Women with full and active lives, families, careers and ambitions – blindsided just like I was. I’ve been awed and inspired by their stories, strength and courage.
Breast Cancer Still a Taboo in India
Breast cancer is one of the most well researched types of cancer globally.
In India, the care and treatment available is top of the line, but early detection is still key to a good outcome. Sadly, there is little public awareness of this disease because for better or worse, breasts are still a taboo subject.
Women are either unaware, afraid or embarrassed to get themselves screened, resulting in the disease often being discovered at a stage when treatment options are more limited.
With the incidence of breast cancer rising at an alarming rate in India, this is a serious problem.
While we have innumerable ads about heart attacks, diabetes, lung cancer and other diseases, how many breast cancer awareness ads have you seen? How many doctors educate young women about the need for early screening? How many of us take the time to do self-exams, ultrasounds or mammograms?
Like millions of other women in India today, I had to learn the hard way. Breast cancer is serious and potentially life threatening if not caught and treated early. Modern medicine has come a long way in treating breast cancer and survival rates are higher now than they were a decade or two ago.
With a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiation, women are being able to recover and live long and full lives. As someone in the middle of treatment, that gives me a lot of hope for the future.
So here I am, at 35 years, 11 months and a few days, with a husband, a son, two fish and…breast cancer. Some days I look in the mirror and can’t recognise the person looking back at me.
On those days, I remind myself that this is temporary and soon my treatment will be over and I hope on that day, I will be cancer free.
Early on in my treatment, many people told me that I had to be “positive” and stay “strong”. Those people don’t know what I do now.
That you don’t “fight” cancer, you cope with it one day at a time. You don’t think “positive”, you learn to be grateful for the love and support of friends and family, and you don’t stay “strong”, you just learn to get up after being knocked down week after week and most of all you don’t give up, because giving up is not an option.
So, if you or anyone you know has been affected by this disease, please share this blog and help spread awareness about this silent disease that affects millions of women in India. And if you haven’t already, please get a breast exam, ultrasound or mammogram today.
(Mandakini Surie lives and works in New Delhi. She is a keen observer and writer of social development issues in India. Currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she hopes to raise awareness of this disease through her writing. In her spare time, she loves to cook, dance and travel in no particular order.)