Out the other side of their battle with breast cancer, six survivors share the big, small and unexpected lessons
Madhulika Sikka, 52
I learnt that your sex life, like your hair, will grow back. All you need is love.
“There is no doubt that your sex life is one of those things that ‘goes’, just like your hair, when you're being treated for breast cancer. Medication dulls your libido. I felt like my body had been mutilated by the mastectomy and poisoned by chemotherapy. I felt unattractive and sex was the furthest thing from my mind. But you know what? Your partner may not feel that way. In fact, he might feel that you are as beautiful as you were when you first fell in love, that the surgery and nine-inch scar across your chest, your baldness and bloating, changes none of that.
The most important lesson I learnt was that I was the same person I was before the cancer. Would sex be exactly the same as before? Probably not, not while you're still dealing with the residual effects of the treatment. But like most other side effects, those pass with time. With the encouragement of a loving partner, your sex life, like your hair, can come back, better and stronger than before.”
Ritu Biyani, 54
I learnt that friends can make the terror less terrifying.
“My daughter and I moved to Pune in 2000, and after two decades of living like a gypsy — I was a dental surgeon in the Indian army and we moved a lot — I was ready to settle down. In September that year, I found out I had breast cancer. I didn’t know people in the new city, so I turned to my friends across the country for support and laughter. We had a joke for everything — from how chemotherapy is like getting drunk on rum for the first time (it’s a knock-out punch) to how if I didn’t have a breast, I could always look for a man with one ball. They kept me sane.
I launched Highways Beyond Cancer (Highwaysbeyondcancer.org) in 2006, which uses adventure sport to spread awareness — my daughter and I were in the Limca Book of Records in 2007 for being the first mother-daughter duo to connect adventure drives and cancer awareness. I’ve made great friends along the way, and I want to connect with people every chance I get.”
Neeti Leekha Chhabra, 33
I learnt that faith can make you stronger than you ever knew you could be.
“Life hasn’t been the same since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012; it’s transformed completely — and for the better. I have always had faith in god and it’s only gotten stronger with this experience. I've become more spiritual. Somehow, I knew I’d be okay; my belief and positivity kept me going. I never questioned why cancer happened to me; instead, I prayed for faith and strength, and I was blessed with both. My perspective on life and relationships changed as well. I have started to appreciate the little moments now. I let go of things more easily. Most importantly, my faith has given me purpose — I started an NGO ‘Yes to Life’ to spread awareness regarding breast cancer and support those affected by the disease. I have learnt that gratitude is the purest form of prayer. I thank god for everything I’ve been blessed with. I’ve learnt that every thought, word or action reflects our faith — and unshakeable faith creates an unshakeable reality.”
Seema Jaya Sharma, 37
I learnt to make the best of the new face in the mirror.
“When I found out I had cancer, I took a long hard look in the mirror — everything about me was going to change and I was terrified. Before this, I couldn’t walk past any reflective surface without checking myself out and used to get a fair amount of attention from the opposite sex. I’m more confident when I feel I look good and I was not going to let cancer take that away from me. After treatment, I became determined to maintain my appearance, albeit with a few changes.
So when I had to wear a sari recently, instead of panicking that I may not look ladylike, I paired the feminine silhouette with edgy accessories — spiky studs instead of dangling earrings and a chunky, eye-grabbing neckpiece. I got lots of compliments. I find dramatic eye make-up or bright lips draw attention away from my bald head. But the strongest weapon in my make-up kit? A big smile. Every time I wear one, I look bloody good.”
Shikha Manchanda, 35
Volunteer health coach and blogger
I learnt that steadfast love can be the greatest motivator.
“At 28, after eight months of fighting breast cancer, with my family standing by me, I believed the worst was over. That's when I tested positive for the BCRA1 gene which meant the cancer could recur; I was advised to have a bilateral mastectomy. I couldn't believe it — after enduring the effects of chemo and beating cancer, I was still going to lose my breasts. I thought of my husband and daughter, my family and friends. Would they run out of support? Would he stay with me through this as well? He did. They all did. It gave me the strength to love myself, which is why after the mastectomy, I wanted my body to be whole again. I made the choice to get reconstructive surgery.
Before cancer, I was never the kind to be vocal about my feelings. But watching them shower me with affection — my husband brought seven different slices of cheesecake to my recovery room because he couldn’t remember my favourite flavour, my friends threw me a braless party and used humour to counter my pain — taught me to never hesitate to tell someone you love them.”