Fashion insider Sabina Chopra: “Cancer came to me as an unexpected teacher”

“When I was diagnosed with cancer, I never gave myself time to process the gravity of the situation. After three months of suspicion and various tests, the tumours in my chest were identified as neuroendocrine carcinomas. This is a type that started on the walls of my lung and spread to the lymph nodes. I treated it like the common cold. I worked out daily. I travelled a fair bit for work, and even went to Sicily on holiday. When a close friend decided to open stores in Mumbai and Delhi, I jumped right in to help him. Through this time, I also continued my mentorship of the Gen Next designers at Lakmé Fashion Week. If I didn’t tell people I was sick, they wouldn’t have been able to guess. I stayed as close to normal as I could.

In hindsight, I was pushing myself, even though being productive felt rewarding. Everyone who knew about my illness had said to me, “If there’s someone who can handle it, it’s you.” But after a while, it got tiring to keep hearing that and putting on a strong face. I finally gave in to the sheer physical pain after my fourth round of chemo. The tumours had become bigger and they tightened around my bronchi and pulmonary vein. I could not speak without coughing. It was a vicious circle — the coughing worsened my pain, which then increased the coughing. This really affected my sense of self — I realised that I had so many unconscious attachments. So much of my identity came from my physical strength, my ability to communicate, love for reading, and curiosity about life. All the things I loved were becoming hard to do.

Beauty Sabina Chopra copy

I used to be that arrogant person who would lift heavy weights at the gym and roll my eyes at people who leisurely stroll on the treadmill. I enjoy extreme sports; I could jump off cliffs. I’m fiercely independent, and could change a flat tyre. When I became the woman who would go into a coughing fit from simply walking on the treadmill, it destroyed any ego that remained. My coping skills failing me was what allowed me to finally understand the seriousness of my illness. Those months with unbearable pain taught me my most valuable lessons. Cancer came to me as an unexpected teacher. Would I wish this experience on someone else? Never. But it gave me the time and clarity I needed to acknowledge and analyse every life experience, every lesson that needed to be learnt, and every pattern that needed changing.

I never saw cancer as a physical illness; I believe that in some form its basis was in my lack of emotional well-being. Anxiety, stress, emotional fragility, all cause inflammation in our bodies that can later lead to some form of illness. I wasn’t really surprised that I was diagnosed with cancer. Growing up, I was always a high achiever; my parents’ expectations were high, and there was absolutely no coming in second. In an environment like this, you become almost a warped version of yourself. I set those same standards for myself and for the people around me, and my tolerance of those who were different was low. I was that terrible person. But not anymore.

Today, I’ve trained myself to ask for help. I’ll phone a friend and say, “Hey, I’m going to the hospital for the treatment. Will you come with me?” A few years ago, those words would not have come out of my mouth. But now, I’ve let people into my life and allowed them to take care of me. A friend took on my nutritional needs and sourced the supplements I required. A few family members made sure I was eating enough on my bad days. My husband, who always had a fear of hospitals overcame it, and manages all my doctor’s appointments and hospital visits. He has been my biggest support. It’s not that I can’t do these things myself, but having a strong support system feels very reassuring.

Some people still say I am unapproachable, and that they are scared of my opinions. And there was a time when that bothered me; I wanted to correct the perception. But that has changed. I found the ability to switch off from these voices five years ago, but only today do I have an understanding of why I shouldn’t let them matter. I realise that it’s something those people need to deal with, because I’m comfortable with who I am. I believe in what I’m saying and that’s enough. It’s no longer important that someone accepts my opinion. The other great relief that’s come with this realisation is how I’m completely okay to say ‘no’ without feeling the need to justify myself.

I strongly believe that the choices I’ve made have created my destiny. I’ve worked hard and I deserve to be where I am. Having cancer just allowed me to access this knowledge. I’d call it nirvana. Now every day is beautiful, and life is fascinating. I still have to do the mundane from time to time, but nothing is a chore anymore.”

Photograph: Prarthna Singh

Sittings editor: Rahul Vijay 

Hair: Cezenia Dias

Make-up: Smita Sharma 

On Chopra: All clothings and accessories, Chopra’s own

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