Ain’t no mountain
How families faced breast cancer together to emerge stronger
“I always tell people I feel like I’m perfectly set up to have cancer. I have great health insurance, I have a savings account. I have work lined up. I have friends and family. I have the best doctors I can get.” American stand-up comic and breast cancer survivor Tig Notaro highlighted a truth not many appreciate about the disease: cancer doesn’t just happen to individuals, it happens to their whole universe.
One lesson that comes home with the diagnosis is that after the shock wears off, life has to go on. Weddings have to be planned, college applications have to be filled out, Christmas still arrives. Families have to keep all departments running even while they catalogue symptoms to report to the oncologist and try to find something palatable for taste buds beaten down by chemo. Daily routines established over years are disrupted by visits to doctors and hospitals that can sometimes be more terrifying than helpful. Surgeries are scheduled overnight, followed by seemingly endless rounds of chemo and radiation. Between dealing with this and the growing emotional and physical needs of the patient, families find themselves without the time or energy to come to terms with their own new reality, their own anxieties and fears.
Amrita Vora was like any sheltered, urban 23-year-old. But things changed swiftly when in 2009 her boyfriend’s mother, Chaya, was detected with breast cancer. After a few surgeries and rounds of chemo and radiation, she was in the clear. But her doctors were wary, and warned that chances of the cancer spreading were still high. By October 2010, the prognosis grew dire and a decision had to be made.
“We planned a June wedding. Everything was uncertain; we didn’t know whether we’d have to bring forward or postpone the date. All we knew is we wanted mom there to see us get married,” says Vora, for whom this meant an overnight transition from being a bride to taking on a position of grave responsibility. Soon after the wedding, the doctors broke the news that Chaya had just a few months left to live. “To an extent, I knew what I was getting into. We hurried with our wedding plans for this very reason. Normally, my parents wouldn’t have let me go at that age, but these weren’t ordinary circumstances.” Vora soon slipped into her new role of cheerleader and nurse. “In the last month of her life, we had family over every single evening. We’d laugh, chat and sing bhajans; just do anything we could to keep things light.” But the evening before her mother-in-law passed, Vora broke down. “For a few months, she only ate when I fed her. Those last few days she refused to eat. That’s when it finally hit me. Watching a person in so much pain can make you lose faith. But it’s important to never let that happen.”
Nilay Shroff was seven when his mother was first diagnosed. They’d caught it early and soon Nikita was given a clean bill of health. His memories of that first time are hazy, but he remembers the second. Four years later, the cancer returned. “One clear memory I have is of the month she spent in hospital. It was during Christmas. We kept all our holiday gifts unopened and waited until she was out in early January to celebrate together as a family.” She underwent aggressive treatment again and was declared healthy. But less than a year later, at a follow-up visit, they found the cancer had spread through most of her body. “My mother was always the positive one. It was harder for us to handle the truth than it was for her,” he says. The doctors gave her a few months, but they lost her in a matter of days. Shroff was 13 and his brother was due to leave for college soon. “My dad moved his office into our home so that he could be around to look after me,” he says. Family and friends rallied around them through the ordeal and this helped. “It was like they were saying, we’re all in this together.”
Young children have the ability to focus on the present in a way that makes it possible for them to soldier through. But Shakti Hasija, who was 20 when his mother Bindu was first diagnosed, felt helpless against the prospect of a parent’s mortality and his own inability to contribute financially to her treatment. “The woman of the house is its emotional anchor. It’s almost impossible to deal with the thought that your anchor is weak and sick,” he says.
After being in remission for almost nine years, the cancer came back. When the doctors confirmed she was cancer-free the first time, the family thought the worst was behind them. But finding out the cancer had returned was a real blow. “It was important to not make her feel sick or incapacitated in any way, that’s how we kept her spirits up the first time as well,” he explains. Bindu, who had a double mastectomy, cuts a brave figure, but even a banal question could undo her composure. Like, how are you. “Asking anyone who’s sick how they’re feeling makes them defensive. So you just have to keep it casual,” says Hasija, emphasising the importance of treading the line between care and overprotection.
Lots of times, he says, people who don’t know them will mistake his father for the cancer survivor —they assume he’s bald, you see, because of chemo. Admittedly, having to witness the physical effects of the disease and its treatment has been a challenge for Hasija. On birthdays, the family gifts each other annual health checkups because they know, all too well now, the value of early detection. He says, “I’ve chosen to live fearlessly. If we’ve defeated it twice, we can do it again. And anyway fear is too selfish an emotion.”
The fact that life does, in fact, go on can be a source of comfort, but it can also be heartbreaking. When Swarna Rao was diagnosed with breast cancer at 45, her son Arjun was 19 and preparing to start his second semester at a university in the US, and her daughter Niharika was 22, all set to take up the job of her dreams in Europe. Suddenly, both of them felt torn about leaving. But Rao wouldn’t let them miss out on these amazing opportunities. “Being away has its pros and cons,” says Rao’s son.
Not having to witness the suffering of your loved one makes the experience slightly less traumatic. “On the other hand, it was really hard knowing that if she needed me I would be so far away. The only way I could deal with the guilt was by telling myself that this is what she wants for me.” It was Rao’s husband who took the news the hardest, she says, “He couldn’t believe that someone as healthy as me could be sick.”
The detours that cancer forces on you it also forces on the person travelling with you. Sima and Girish Lalwani were planning a family when she was found to have breast cancer at 34. After intensive treatment, including a lumpectomy, Sima was given the all-clear by her doctor. It’s been nine years since, but given what her body went through, the couple has decided against having children. Girish says, “We thank god every single day. We’ve been married 12 years and I pray we have countless more to look forward to.”
In many ways, being handed that diagnosis is isolating; no one else can fight the disease for you and no one will know exactly how it feels to live in its shadow. But the truth is that people rarely fight cancer alone; it takes a village.