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Her mother’s battle against breast cancer taught actor Nargis Fakhri a lesson for life

By As told to Samira Sood  July 21st, 2019

My mother was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in her breast ten years ago. I was travelling a lot in those days, and my younger sister was away at university. But obviously, when it happened, I moved back to be with her. I remember just mechanically taking charge, there was no drama. I guess when you’re in shock, you don’t realise how you feel for a while, you just go through the motions of doing what you have to do.

My mother’s cancer wasn’t at a hugely advanced stage, but the doctor wanted to do a mastectomy. I was completely against it. I just couldn’t come to terms with her having something that’s so much a part of her, something that makes her a woman, taken out. 

I guess being from an industry that puts so much emphasis on appearance and beauty affected my opinion, too. I didn’t want my mom to go through that. The doctors kept pushing her to get the surgery – they said, “In case the cancer spreads, you’ll have to get it done anyway.” I said, “No way. You are not getting a mastectomy. If anything, get a lumpectomy first, and if the cancer comes back, then we’ll deal with it at that point. Why have more surgeries than required?”

I suppose we were banking on history a little, too. Because, the thing is, my mom had earlier had tumours in her uterus, and the doctors had told her she’d need to have them removed. She’d refused then and gone about researching vitamins and herbs, and treated herself with a concoction that actually worked – when she went back to the doctor, the tumours had disappeared completely.

So, she had the lumpectomy, and the doctors wanted her to undergo some post-surgery chemotherapy to make sure we got all of it. Once again, I put my foot down. She looked at me like I was crazy, the oncologist looked at me like I was crazy, but I know my mom and I knew that the frequent trips to the hospital would drain her completely. And make her really unhappy. So I asked them to give her something else, and that’s when they introduced her to Arimidex, which is basically chemo in a bottle, that you can take yourself. They told her to take it for five years.  

Within the first year itself, my mom was a totally different person. She was a zombie, constantly sick, in pain, couldn’t move. The chemo had made her bones brittle and while on it, she broke her ankle and was in a wheelchair for six months. I found myself angry. I have never really had much faith in Western medicine and it didn’t feel right to be paying through our noses for something that was weakening her and making her feel worse. By the second year, she’d had enough and we decided to get rid of the chemo; she returned to her trusted natural remedies.

In the middle of all this awful stuff, I noticed my mom had changed in ways other than just physical. She’s had a hard life – my parents split when I was young and she was my mom and dad (and sometimes my child too!) – and even though she’s very tough, she used to constantly say that she wanted to die. But when she was diagnosed, I think she was so scared that it made her more cheerful, strangely. She’d joke that god had actually listened to her! She wanted to do everything, wanted to go everywhere, wanted to try new things, to live each day to the fullest. In fact, my sister and I used to joke that she became much cooler after the cancer. I learnt so much emotionally from watching her go through this and taking care of her – we had always been close friends and the illness just brought us closer.

It was year three now. And when she went for her routine checkup, we found the cancer was gone. She’s been cancer-free for more than five years now. So I really believe that god has created so many natural remedies and by ignoring them and stuffing our bodies with chemicals, we’re only making things worse for ourselves. I’m a firm believer in holistic healing, in natural cures. I’m not prescribing anything, though, because everyone’s bodies are different and respond differently to different foods and treatments. So, the most important thing is to be educated, to be aware, to take your time, to not rush into anything or be forced into anything. I myself am an obsessive compulsive researcher. I like to find out everything I can about health, be it food, water, environment-friendly living – I like to listen, take in information, do my own homework, try it out and see whether it works for me.

We live lives that are so fast-paced and the truth is, we can’t afford to be too idealistic and rigid about lifestyles and diets. I can’t comment on the stress someone’s going through at work, or at home. We also know that a healthy lifestyle isn’t insurance against cancer – we’ve all heard of people who don’t smoke, don’t drink, who exercise and eat right, but still get cancer. It can strike anyone. But at least we can have the satisfaction of knowing we do our best to be healthy. My only advice is that regular self-examination is really important. It’s up to you to know your body, and the earlier you start, the better. Regular checkups are important, too, and if it happens – and I hope it doesn’t – that you need treatment, make sure to get at least two or three opinions before deciding on a treatment plan. Go with what feels instinctively right for you.

But my key takeaway from my mom’s illness is that family and friends are the single most important people in your life. You cannot depend on anyone else to care for you, not even your doctors. Spend as much time with the people you love as you possibly can, before it’s too late. We spend so much time looking at our individual needs, daily needs, we forget what’s most important. Do all the things you want to do, enjoy your life.

Honestly, I’m not scared of death because I know that if I die tomorrow, the only regret I’ll have is that I missed out on giving birth (well, that and sky diving). It’s vital to stay positive, to remember that cancer is not the end of the world. It doesn’t have to mean the worst.

Photograph: Tarun Vishwa