“Mrs. Mukherjee, I have very bad news for you. You have cancer.”
“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” – Tom Bodett.Sreeja had all three, and … so do we. And that is exactly what this story is all about. If we only open up our hearts to HOPE!
Roughly one in nine women are at risk of developing Breast Cancer in the world – American Cancer Society
As I sat down to talk to Sreeja Mukherjee about her experience, battle, escape from, and life journey with breast cancer, I held back a fear that all women live with – am I next? But she related it all so simply, with unchecked emotion yet a brave dignity, a sense of pride and the need to share a story that might give hope to many more women who suffer in silence.
She gave me hope.
This is how it all started
“I think me and my husband, we were in Zurich. This was the last day of Puja Festival. We were just chatting with friends having a good time and my doctor calls up and says: Mrs. Mukherjee, I have very bad news for you. You have cancer.” As Sreeja related her conversation with her doctor on the eve of a religious festival, the shock of it still resided in her voice and her expression – how could she get this news when she least expected it, and that too, over the phone, without any warning or even a hint of things to come.
Sreeja Mukherjee is 44 years old, a mother and wife. She is a cancer survivor. She holds an MBA, and she was working at a bank in Mumbai earlier. She then moved to Switzerland, studied to further her qualifications. About a year ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. This is her story.
Why did you visit the doctor, I asked, wondering what caught her attention
So, first of all, I would say I was a bit lucky. Because you know, I had these three nodes in my left breast, and I felt that somehow, they were becoming a bit bigger. And I went to my doctor for a routine checkup. I used to get them closer to my period of time, but this time they were there for more than three weeks. And I had this feeling somehow inside me, telling me that it’s growing. You know, there was an intuitive voice, which was saying it was growing, and that I needed to go to the doctor. I went to saw him, and he said: “Well, it’s just a normal set cyst. We did the ultrasound, and he said he knew this is just a normal cyst we don’t need to worry. But when he saw that I was a bit skeptical. He was like, okay, you know what, we will go for a mammogram, you’re still very young to get a mammogram, you know. They encourage mammogram only after the age of 45 in Switzerland.
I was 43.
Okay, so he was like, you’ve just turned 43, I don’t think it’s cancer or anything. But just to keep you sane. Let’s go for this test. So yeah, so we went for this mammogram. And it took, I think, three or four days for the result to come. So this is very interesting how the results came. So
Were you scared after the mammogram? I asked, wondering if her intuition was still getting the best of her nerves.
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I thought it’s going to be just a cyst, the cancer thing didn’t even occur to me.
How did you find out then? I pressed on, wondering how anyone dealt with mind-blowing news, as if to brace myself and be more empathetic for all those iI know who have met with it.
So my husband and I were in Zurich. This was last day of Durga Puja, which is a big festival for for Bengalis. So we were there for this. And we were just chatting with friends having a good time and my doctor calls up. And he said, Miss Mukherjee, Mrs. Mukherjee, I have a very bad news for you. He said it like this. Oh, Shazia. I swear, I felt as though, I don’t know how to express it … And then he said, you have cancer, a malignant one. I felt as though I was hit by a tree.
I was there having a good time with friends. And he calls me up. And he says, I have very, very bad news for you. You have cancer. And I said, Well, what stage tell me, you know, I was like, and the tears started rolling down. And I was like, Oh, my God, I cannot tell you how I felt!
I was in tears. But then somehow, after the tears subsided, looking up at the Goddess, I said to myself:
okay, you know, maybe this is some plan you have for me through this? Yeah. I would say Faith and hope is very important when you go through all this for every women. And I actually, I remember talking to myself – maybe there’s something planned. Let me see how I can face this – I need your strength to go through this. I don’t know if I will be successful or not, but I’ll come back here if I’m alive next year.
I need to make my bucket list I don’t know if I’m gonna die but if I’m gonna die if the doctor tells me on Monday that this is your last stage, I’m gonna do all the things which I wanted in my life I’m gonna do them and I told my husband, you’re not gonna stop me. He was like really emotional. And then we decided you’re not going tell our college going son just now about my cancer because we wanted to wait.
After we met the doctor and charted a treatment plan, we decided our son can come and meet me every weekend. And that is what has happened he has been coming every weekend to see me and that was a big mental support for him as well as you know to see him that his mother is alive and she’s handling it well you know so that thing was a big support
If you were to tell a potential cancer patient, one thing? I asked, hoping for a miracle answer.
“The one most important thing is hope. Be surrounded by people who bring positivity. One message I would like to give all my friends – ladies, please be busy. Surround yourself with positive people find something which you really love.” Responded Sreeja.
Do you become more forgiving? I wonder. Speaking my thoughts out loud to her.
“I am grateful for every small thing in life, all the things I took for granted. I now consider every small thing as a gesture from God. Sometimes cancer can also act as a catalyst. I want to do things, change things, help people.” Replies Sreeja passionately, as she contemplates her business start up, that aims to digitize the world of learning for school children in India.
Sreeja goes on to explain how a life-threatening disease takes its toll on family members as well. She spoke of her husband Cybil:
Sreeja continues, utterly grateful for all the support she felt fortunate to have by her side.
“Every person goes through a different journey, mine was completely different to what I’ve heard from other people. I have been more positive and complete, I had a family who was like rock, and also good, wonderful friends who have been really, really supportive. And also, my doctor, I would say he was there always, always there for me 24×7. If I had any issue, he was there to help me out. So, I think a good team around you makes all the difference. People will motivate you.”
Here’s what Sreeja had to say:
Honestly, the first time when I came to know I had cancer, it was very difficult for me to assimilate it. But I think it took me a week’s time to get my thoughts together. Okay, I told myself, so now, I have it, what is the next step I need to take? And what are the things I need to keep in mind so that everything is in sync with what I want? Explained Sreeja in a very rational manner.
Do you think having children, being a mother gives you strength that you have to go on for them?
You want to walk us through from Monday, from when the doctor told you till the present? I asked, anxious to know how she began her journey.
Fast forward Monday and I was told this is an invasive cancer. I had to get three biopsies done because two of them were not successful, they wanted to get samples from the lymph node also, if it is not metastatic, you know, so, i.e., spreading further in the body.
I have to tell you one thing here, the biopsy I think was so painful, so painful. I think women should know about this because it was always set out as just a small procedure.
They gave me anesthesia, but it was a local anesthesia. But somehow it doesn’t work that well.
My cancer was diagnosed as second stage and I was lucky it was not metastatic.
Where did the hope come from then? I persisted, hoping to give hope to many more whose stories might be similar to Sreeja’s
It was a big blow mentally and emotionally. But the second week onwards, I was a bit stronger. I did tell myself then that whatever it is, I have to go through this. I cannot control what is happening to me, but I can control how I deal with it. And I think that was important for me, because I’m a yoga practitioner. Also, I believe that you have to start living in the moment, if you think too much about the past or future you can never enjoy your life. I said, this is a part of my karmic journey. I need to just focus on the present, not think too much. And I think that really helped me – living every day as if you’re living today. Not making too many plans for next year.
So your time during chemotherapy was in isolation, or did you want to meet people? There is always the fear of infection, right, especially in covid times, I asked. Curious to know how she dealt with it.
Side effects of chemo?
I told my doctor that I’m having mood swings. He said it was very normal. Don’t stress about it, don’t think about it, just go with it. When you flare up, it will happen. And then you will be alright, after a few, a few minutes, whatever.
Help from family & friends? I had heard of how communities come together to provide comfort and care…
So, my mom came to stay with me when she came to know about my cancer. She came here to help me out. And I think it was a big, big emotional support for me and my husband. She is I think, one of the finest women I know. So, my mother is a pillar of strength. I think she gave immense hope to my husband and me. I would say she was stronger. The only thing she could not manage was when she saw me losing my hair. You know that when my husband was actually helping me shave my head off. That was the time she just couldn’t control herself. She cried and cried.
My hair was a big blow and yeah, actually I cried too.
But then my doctor always told me “Sreeja, you’re gonna get much better hair, healthier and much denser. ” It’s more like mind over matter, she responded, you cry about it, but after, I didn’t think about my hair at all, I became actually more comfortable being bald.
In the hospital too, everybody was surprised because just after the operation, I put on my red lipstick, and I had my nails all painted.
Experience at the Chemo sessions
So it’s always somebody different at the sessions. Responds Sreeja. I have made friends with all of them actually. I conversed with them in my German and English. So majority of them have gone through this experience once or sometimes it is the second or third time that cancer returns. But it’s okay. I look at their strength and the way they deal with situation. It is amazing.
Does it help to join a cancer survivor group? I asked
I don’t know about that Shazia because I am not a member of any group. Yes, I am friends with these women because I also teach them yoga. So I do those free yoga classes for cancer patients. So I have become very close to them. But otherwise, I am not a part of any other group. I think it might help to talk but I have so many friends, that they have, in effect, become my support group.
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Sreeja also caught Covid in between her treatment which was twice as challenging because of her compromised immunity
And yeah, I caught Covid too! She reveals. My doctor told me that it might be from the hospital because I had gone for an MRI. And that day, a lot of patients came for this test, and the majority of them were positive. So that’s how I got it. But mine was really bad.
So the chemo got delayed because of this. It affected my lungs also. I have a permanent pulmonary embolus in my lungs. So they had to give me a blood thinner. That happened because of the chemo. Yes, that’s one of the side effects. So I had around 17 rounds of chemo.
What makes you smile to the world when you’re going through something so tough, I asked her, still overwhelmed by the 17 rounds of chemo…
I think it also helps when you put a face to it, like you face it strongly, like, I don’t like getting sympathy from people. And a woman who goes ahead and says, you know what, I’m ready for it. Let’s face it. So yeah, when they saw me so bold and talking about everything without any issues they were like okay, let’s talk but that’s just me Shazia, she’s quick to explain. I don’t know about others, but some people are different. I have met friends who would not come out of their home. Even for one hour, they would be locked up in their room not talking to even their parents. So I think everybody behaves differently. It’s just that I was different. I was eating normal food. I didn’t make any dietary changes as such. Okay, good organic food. But I’m not a meat eater, so I was having my normal food, daal, chawal, chicken, but less quantity. Whatever I could. My nausea was very bad.
If you were to tell a potential cancer patient one thing?
Be surrounded by people who bring positivity in your life. Stay away from negative people. I did have a friend who related, in all her sincerity, a very bad cancer experience. I didn’t want to stay in touch. I wasn’t comfortable discussing the downsides, it would affect my mental health. There were days I was in bad shape, during my chemo, so I wanted to stay uplifted as much as possible.
Please give space to a cancer patient. Don’t hand out sympathy. It doesn’t make things better.
My husband and my mother have been a big support. They must have gone through hell, it was not easy for them. My son too. seeing him made me feel better.
I experienced accelerated menopause, fits of anger because of the treatment.
One has to be busy in life. Then you don’t have time to think. I worked except ion the day of the chemo and the very next day, so my body could cope with the treatment. I was sane because I would work every morning at my business. I am the founder of Integrated Advisory GMB Hub. We help companies from Asia to incorporate in Europe. So i continued working for the3 hours in the morning, then took a break in the afternoon and napped. So listen to your body.
Do not google your condition. It will make you paranoid. Trust your doctor and listen to him.
Please be busy, find something that you really love, please do meditation, yoga daily, it really helps and kept me going.
Cancer changes you
I am grateful for every small thing in life now. The things I took for granted, I consider every small thing in life a gesture from God. Even if someone has brought a flower for you, cherish it! I’ve been very lucky; I’ve been surrounded by good people. Sometimes cancer acts as a catalyst, you do things you had always wanted to do. Change things, help people help spread literacy in my country through my venture.
I have a bucket list too – it’s travel to South America. Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia. I have a list!
She signs off with a signature statement: There’s no handbook for cancer. Take one day at a time.
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