Adit, sit properly and stop touching things”, hushed Abha in an admonishing tone at her three and a half year old son. She was sitting in the doctor’s chamber, too distracted by her only son’s naughty antics. The reports the doctor had to share couldn’t be hers, she thought in disbelief. She had run a few tests four days ago. Reason? A dull ache in her arms and sporadic episodes of dizziness – well, at times acute dizziness – but cancer? ‘How could this happen to me?’ was all she could think in the beginning.
On 11th Dec 2011, just nine days before her 37th birthday, Abha discovered a swelling in her underarm that sent her to the nearest GP. The dull pain and dizziness had been going on for a couple of weeks. All Abha did to treat them were numerous massages and intakes of sugar to kick her out of the current dizzy spell. But taking one look at her swollen underarm, the GP immediately referred her to a breast surgeon. After multiple tests, scans and a biopsy, on 29th Dec 2011 Abha was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage three, which had already spread to her lymph nodes.
Abha was torn. One part of her bled “I don’t want to die. I want to see my only son grow up in front me!” But the other half of her refused to accept treatment, especially here in Singapore where it’s obscenely expensive. “What if after spending all our savings, I still don’t make it through? I wouldn’t want to leave the rest of my family behind in poverty” was this brave lady’s argument. Of course, her husband Pankaj and her parents would hear none of it.
On 5th Jan 2012 a small port catheter was embedded under one skin layer, right below her left collar bone. This was connected to her central venous system, through which she was to immediately begin receiving her chemo medication. The first phase of chemo lasted for twelve weeks. Then on 5th April she had her surgery. After a gap of two weeks, Abha went through radiation, daily for a whole month. And then she had to undergo a second phase of chemo – given every third week. The whole process lasted a full year.
When the initial blow and reality of the news had sunk in, and Abha and her family decided to start treatment, she knew right away that a lot had to change – the way she sleeps, eats, drinks, thinks – everything!
She started sleeping alone. She stopped sharing the master bedroom and bath, since she had to ensure she wasn’t exposed to anyone else’s germs or infections. Any guests coming to visit were first asked if they were free of any cough or flu etc. to ensure they didn’t carry germs over, since Abha’s low immunity couldn’t afford such nuisances on top of her current illness. There were huge disinfectant bottles all over the house and everyone living in or visiting had to frequently sanitize generously.
She followed a strict diet including fruits, vegetables, soups and juices. She had to eat light so as to not over work her metabolism, already dealing with the heavy chemo medications. Dairy products and sugars were a strict no-no as cancer cells feed on sugar. Meditation and yoga became part of her daily routine. And in fact, her most powerful weapon in this battle was her positivity. She would go for long walks with Pankaj and make plans for the future. She had to focus on living.
Abha was lucky to have a fantastic support system of family and friends. Her husband Pankaj, her parents (who came from India), her sister (who flew in from the U.S) and her mother-in-law were all there, every step of the way. They ate what she ate, with separate food cooked only for her son. They all managed themselves in the other two bedrooms and the one common bathroom for the whole year since the master bed and bath were exclusively for Abha. As a house rule, they never let Abha attend any phone calls to ward off the unwanted multiplier effect of grieving and condoling relatives who fail to understand that this only adds to the pain instead of helping it. When Abha’s hair began shedding within a month of starting the first phase of chemo, she decided to shave her head completely. Hats off to Pankaj who went in solidarity with her and had his head shaved too. He ensured that none of the unfortunate circumstances impacted Adit in anyway.
How Adit was managed throughout that year, Abha had no idea. It was made sure that Adit’s life and routine would continue as if normal. If there were plays to go to, birthday parties to attend, he was taken. Other than Pankaj himself of course, family and friends helped out immensely too. They often arranged playdates or outings for Adit to keep him engaged and away from the pain and grief. Someone would come over and cook or even help around the house when Abha had maid troubles – a given in Singapore. They would also take turns to go to the hospital and sit with Abha through chemo sessions.
The day I was supposed to meet Abha, I went expecting to meet a haggard, drawn woman who though beat cancer, must be showing some traces of the toll this disease must have played on her body and appearance. On the contrary, I was pleasantly met with a smart, petite woman with glowing skin, sporting fashionably short cropped hair. With a determined look, Abha remarked “Everyone has to die. You can’t control that. But you can control how you live – be positive and make healthy choices”.
The only point in our meet up, when Abha’s strength of emotions seemed to falter was when she spoke of her son. Her eyes watered when she remembered her initial fear of not being able to make it and see him grow up. She had been really upset when she was not allowed to hug him or pick him up in her arms, to avoid bumping the port lest in leads to any complications. “Though this channel of giving me chemo saved me from a lot of dead veins, punctured arms and of course added pain, it came between me and Adit”, she said sadly. “But kids surprise you in amazing ways. Adit took everything like a fish takes to water. He had no behavioral issues, not at home or school. I believe the conscious choice of keeping his routine intact was instrumental!”
Abha’s resolve to fight and her forte of emotional strength were all motivating and soul-arousing. Her approach of positivity helped her take it all in stride. When I was apologetic towards the end for making her relive those painful times, she brushed it aside saying “It’s silly if people like me who were lucky and blessed to make it through, shut themselves up and don’t share their experience. It’s in the spirit of spreading awareness and to encourage others to speak up and question, rather than to live with uncertainties “.
Abha’s words gave me goose bumps. They sent a tingle up my back thinking about the immense strength a human being is capable of mustering to practically face the greatest obstacles in life that are unthinkable for most. For it is true, that for every challenge in life, we have two paths to choose from; the path that goes down the sulking way where one broods and cribs ‘Why me?’ And the other path with the ‘Let’s deal with it’ approach where one knows that learning to live with the given circumstances is the only way forward. Of course this is easier said than done. But when we see people like Abha face the unknown with astoundingly admirable courage, we must open our eyes and learn a thing or two. We get problems. But we shouldn’t let them control us.
But is it all over? No. Abha still lives with the constant fear that God-forbid there may still be a slim chance of the malignancy returning. Any time she has the slightest fever or even a common cold, she rushes to her oncologist to run tests and strike out any doubts. She takes biannual shots for her bones since all that chemo and radiation has been detrimental. Her everyday life and dietary habits have changed permanently, though eating healthy has given a glow to her skin.
We are grateful to Abha for sharing all with us. We wish her a long, happy, and healthy life with her beautiful family and friends. And we leave you with a lot to think over how you manage your body and time. Don’t take these assets for granted. Don’t let life’s ups and downs get to you. Love yourself. Love your sole. Feed it with positivity and live well.
Aghna Javed is a proud product of a simple gadget-free bachpan, mum’s food, places she travelled to, the three boys in her life (yes, counting her hubby in too), books she has read, and everything else that life throws at her. Previously having worked at P&G, she is now a budding entrepreneur bringing interactive marketing campaigns to life in Singapore. Amongst her many aspirations in life, Aghna indulges in her childhood hobby of writing through FUCHSIA, volunteers with Singapore Red Cross, and simultaneously works on improving her Mandarin-speaking skills. Read more about Aghna in contributing writers.