Exactly a month before my 26th birthday, I was told I had breast cancer. Sounds heart-breaking? Weirdly enough, it wasn’t.
When my weeping mother sat next to me and told me that the lump I had felt and gotten tested was positive, I smiled. The naive me thought that all I had was a lump which would be operated on and then I would be done with the cancer business. Thoughts like chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy didn’t even cross my mind even once.
Three weeks later, my lumpectomy scans revealed that my cancer was a 9/9 in terms of aggressiveness. Hence, I was told I needed all forms of treatment, starting with 20 rounds of chemotherapy. That’s the day, I felt my world crumbling down. My first and foremost fear was my hair. Whilst I was single but not quite looking for love at that point in time, the thought of turning bald killed me.
My second and probably my most important worry was my career. I had just been promoted two months ago and I could not even begin to fathom the impact six months of extensive treatment would have on my career.
As if being told that I had breast cancer wasn’t enough, what hurt more was doctors observing how rare it was at my age, given that I was not genetically pre-disposed for it. We consulted some of the best doctors here in India and all they said was that they had not seen a breast cancer case in a single women as young as me. Whilst my family and friends showered me with all the love in the world, all I wanted in that moment was to talk to someone who would truly understand me.
“Child, it is only your hair. It will grow back”, didn’t help. “Megha, it is just your career, it is only a small part of your life” didn’t comfort me. Neither did stories of distant aunts and grandmothers having dealt with breast cancer. And, telling me that I had the easiest form of cancer certainly didn’t help.
Feeling completely lost, I turned to the internet. Thankfully enough, after hours and hours of research, I came across several young women my age undergoing the same ordeal. Women, who were kind enough, to put each moment of their journey out on social media. Women, who, through their blog and Instagram posts, finally offered me some comfort. Women, who instead of painting the rosy picture, were telling us the truth. Women who were acknowledging how a cancer diagnosis and everything around it sucks. Women who at the same time were teaching us how best to embrace the ‘new normal’.
After having consulted several doctors across the globe, and doing my own ‘Google research’, I decided to go ahead with chemotherapy. By then, I thought I had found solutions to my two problems. My hair — I would take the cold cap to preserve it. My career- I would work through treatment. However, neither of the solutions really worked.
My hair was falling in clumps despite the cold cap and the cap would give me the chills. Due to the discomfort, I stopped using the cold cap, two months before the end of my treatment.
As for my job, I couldn’t manage going to work due to very low immunity. So, I decided to work from home whenever I felt better (which my firm very generously accepted). Working from home felt amazing as while everything about me was changing, my ability to work hadn’t changed.
However, peripheral neuropathy and ‘chemo brain’ eventually got the better of that too.
Despite the above, when I look back to my chemotherapy days, my hair and career issues don’t quite seem to be so significant. The primary issue (apart from the physical discomfort) that defined my treatment was my mental health. The thoughts of “Why me? What did I do wrong?”, the hair falling in clumps, the weekdays spent in bed watching mindless shows when they could have been spent excelling at work, the weekends spent at home when they could have been spent out partying, were all silently killing me from the inside.
To add to that, was people and their advice. While I am sure it was all very well-meaning, it only made things worse. Telling me that I got cancer, because I had a stressful job was insensitive. And, so was telling me that I was suffering because I was not drinking wheat-grass juice, doing yoga, meditating or staying happy.
My blood cells falling to a critical low and my body’s adverse reaction to the new chemotherapy drug were the defining moments for me. These instances motivated me to stop worrying and start living each moment at a time. They helped me focus on and be grateful for everything (however small it maybe), that was going right.
Words of Advice
If any of you are about to start, or are undergoing, treatment, believe me when I say this, ignore everything that the world has to say. Do what makes you feel better in that moment. You and your well-being (mental, emotional and physical) is all that should matter. You are battling a life-threatening disease (one that didn’t quite bring upon yourself), undergoing gruelling treatment and yet are waking up each morning in the hope that the new day would be better. So, anyone who tells you that you aren’t doing enough, shouldn’t matter. The only kind of people you need around you are the ones who acknowledge that you are going through hell and that you did nothing wrong to deserve this and who will stand by your side no matter what.
As for the ‘cancer muggles’, I really do hope that you stop offering unsolicited advice to us cancer patients. If everyone had figured the cause of, and cure for, cancer, people wouldn’t be dying due to this terrible disease. Just show up, let the person know that he or she is loved and that you are there for them. That’s all you need to do to show that you care.
- Megha Agarwal
P.S. Megha is a Peer at SoulUp. If you are on a similar journey and would like to have a conversation with Megha, you can book a 1-on-1 online conversation with her here.