In May 2013, I was sitting with my colleagues in a school I used to teach at. We were discussing cancer. I don’t exactly remember how or why the subject came up but since most people there, including me, at the time knew someone who had been through cancer, it was perhaps natural for the topic to come up. It was during this discussion that we started talking about breast cancer.
The conversation steered to detection and that is when a colleague mentioned that lumps in the breasts could be a symptom of breast cancer. That was when I very casually mentioned a lump that I had had in my right breast for around two years. In a very nonchalant manner, I went on to tell them that it wasn’t painful and that I had never bothered about it. I just ignored it.
The reaction I got was anything but casual. Despite being advised multiple times by my colleagues to get it checked, I decided to continue ignoring the lump. Summer vacation started and my family and I took a trip to Kashmir. The trip was a surprise for me and I wasn’t going to let some lump stand in the way.
It was during this trip though that I noticed some physical changes in my body. My body temperature was warmer. I felt pinching in the right breast, nipples were painful and I felt a little nauseous. At that time I thought it was perhaps because of the high altitude, so I ignored it and enjoyed the vacation, which was more important to me at the time.
When we returned from that trip I spoke to a friend, who is also a doctor, and she quickly arranged an appointment with an oncologist at the Fatima Memorial Hospital. I casually went there. They took a mammogram, conducted an ultrasound of breasts and did some other tests.
I remember the day clearly. It was July 24, 2013 and following initial tests I was diagnosed with BI-RADS category IV cancer. I remember when the doctor saw my reports – the poor lady shouted at my ignorance and told me I should go to the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital (SKMCH) at once. With some mixed feelings I drove myself to the SKMH poly clinic and luckily got checked there too the same day. They got me an appointment at the main hospital.
It was when I got home in the evening and told my family that I realised that while the word cancer could be very daunting, it could also bring people together. When it entered my life though, I thought of it as another adventure and it wasn’t scary.
Before I got diagnosed I had been happy but lonely in my life. My children were grown up and they needed their space and time for themselves so their mother wasn’t needed anymore. As a couple, too, our life had become stagnant. But the moment we collected the reports from the SKMCH, my husband became my shadow – he was with me 24/7. My sons and daughter became my strength when I was low in spirits.
After my last chemo, I came down with some infection and had to be admitted to the hospital. Due to a reaction from a medicine I was taking, I fell unconscious that day. At the time my youngest son and my sister-in-law were with me. I clearly remember the voice of my son “Mama! Mama, wake up! Wake up!” I can still hear his voice clearly.
Another day I was short of breath and everyone panicked. At that moment my daughter told everyone to stop panicking and made me do some breathing exercises. After a while I felt okay. That day I met my brave daughter.
During that same time, my eldest son was juggling between giving me time and working on his thesis, for which he received honours later.
I had six chemotherapy sessions. The first three days of every round of chemo were tough. There was a lot of vomiting, dizziness, and I couldn’t eat much. The fun part was I got to shave my head after the first chemo because the hair fall was very messy. Before every chemo, I also went for a manicure, pedicure and a massage to boost my energy level. I would recommend that to every cancer patient.
My husband became a zabardast chef during my treatment. He made soups, fresh juices, pies, and different kinds of dishes that we all enjoyed. Since chemo had stripped me of my sense of taste, my husband would make multiple dishes for each meal, making sure to wash the kitchen thoroughly for hygiene. I’d take two bites of each dish he prepared to appreciate his effort, and most days would only eat a full meal two bites at a time.
Also read: Our breast cancer problem
It was this love and constant support that helped me through my treatment. My mastectomy was scheduled on December 30, 2013. It was an interesting day. It was also my 25th wedding anniversary. I was a little afraid that day, especially since I am also diabetic. Aside from this there were no other fears in my mind. The loss of the breast itself was not something I was worried about. To this day, it isn’t something that bothers me. In informal gatherings I don’t use the artificial breast. These are places I know of where people will be comfortable with my missing breast.
I have been a cancer survivor for six years now and over time I have become more confident about my breast removal. Though there are some things that still get to me. My hair never grew back the way it had been before – it thinned out. This is something that concerns me. Apart from the mastectomy there are other permanent changes to my body: the chemo impacted my nails – they became brittle but have improved over time; my legs have gotten weaker and I can’t walk like I used to. In all honesty, this is the one thing that bothers me the most.
One can never term cancer a blessing but to me it provided an opportunity to reclaim some of the most important relationships in my life. It was an adventure my family and I were on together, which is why I never felt alone during this journey.
The writer is an educationist and a homemaker