The joy of cancer

In his battle against cancer, the writer discovered that it's a blessing in disguise

Illustrating man killed by cigaretteIn a short period of less than two weeks my life had taken an about turn. I had walked through many corridors of many hospitals. I was educated, unemployed and my lungs were riddled with cancer. I had been turned away from a lobectomy in which a part of my right lung would have been removed. Surgery that had been confirmed only twenty-four hours previously. Surgery that was cancelled minutes before it was to begin. Surgery for which I had spent twenty-four hours preparing my mind, body and soul to accept.

[My wife] Amrita and I drove in silence through the crowded streets of Mumbai. In a short span of time, her life, too, had changed dramatically. Nothing that I could have said would have mattered. Nothing that she could have said would have helped. As we entered the premises of the TATA Memorial Hospital, uppermost in my mind was, what had I done to deserve this?

Yes. What indeed had I done to deserve this? I was confronted with the inevitable ‘Why me’ question. What was the difference between me and the man across the street? Me and the rest of the world? And, conversely, what was so special about me that my lungs could not be afflicted with cancer cells? And, would I have wished that my best friend had cancer instead of me? Or any of my near and dear ones? Or my worst enemy even? No. I was the chosen one. Did I have it in me to save myself from cancer? Not in the medical sense but every other way that could support medical treatment? What changes was I to anticipate in my life? What changes would I be able to cope with?

In retrospect, there is a good side to being confronted with a final diagnosis, howsoever painful that diagnosis might be. Until then, I had taken each day and each test result as it came with a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, despair and hope. After being torn apart in this manner, there was an odd comfort in finally knowing the truth. At least I knew where I stood.

In the following days I spoke to my body. Tenderly, lovingly, gently. I wanted each part of my being to be ready for the long struggle that lay ahead. For the parts that were not yet affected, I had to ensure that there was no way that the cancer cells could enter and take control. I began to realise that only I had the power to control my body. My body was me. Together we had to be prepared.

It might seem like a strange way to look at a cancer diagnosis, but the truth is that your body is you, healthy or not, and going outside yourself to look upon that body from a distance, in disdain, or in fear, is the worst thing you can do. In my mind I said a short prayer thanking God for our first victory. And from that moment in time there was no looking back in anger. No turning around to see my life crumble before me. I was a cancer patient and there was nothing in the world that could alter that fact. No amount of rage or grief could change things around.

It was then that I realised that the treatment, control or cure, were as much in my hands as they were in the hands of the doctors. I had to learn to navigate my ship in a manner that was totally alien to me. I had to change the way I saw and did most things in my life. I could not worry about trivial things like being unemployed. These things would change automatically as and when it was time for them to change. I was fighting a war against cancer. A war of many battles deep inside my own territory. In a terrain that I was not totally familiar with. It was a war that I could not afford to lose.

In a short span of time, I changed dramatically. In my attitude towards everything and everyone who was near and dear to me. I was preparing to live my life with a single-minded purpose. For the next six to eight months. Or much longer, if I survived beyond that period. To the doctors, statistics were what mattered. To them I was a Stage Four cancer patient. In other words, I was as good as dead. I had no option but to blast those statistics.

The first stage of the treatment begins with acceptance. Not hesitant acceptance but total acceptance. Don’t expect doctors to help you do this, they have far too much else to deal with, but they do agree that when a patient is cured, it is because both mind and body were in a state of acceptance. You cannot just wish cancer away. No amount of remorse or prayers can revert a medical diagnosis. And the sooner this harsh reality is accepted, the sooner you can move towards coping with cancer.

Getting into the ‘Why me?’ syndrome is lethal. Often the ‘Why me?’ is compounded by ‘Why now?’ And that makes acceptance even more difficult. Moreover, you will soon find yourself surrounded by well-meaning friends and relatives who begin to talk the same language. To avoid such an unhappy state of affairs, you, the patient, must take charge.

Remember always, how you communicate with the world is the way the world will communicate with you. And your communication must start from within. How can you reject a part of your own being? Those bad cells are an integral part of you. Rejecting them would be like rejecting yourself. And the more you turn away from the truth, the more the malignancy of the disease begins to gain the upper hand. Try thinking of your cancer as an unwelcome guest. You might wish it would go away soon, but don’t slam the door in its face. It doesn’t work.

Don’t delay the acceptance stage because with cancer there is very little time to lose. You need time to build your army for battle. Each day wasted is an opportunity for the cells to gain advantage. If you are completely ignorant about cancer, and this is causing nameless fears in you, read all you can about the disease at this stage, or surf the net. There are huge amounts of information available today. Knowledge reduces fear. There are innumerable horrifying myths about cancer that need to be dispelled and learning the truth about the disease is the way to do it.

Once you’ve accepted the fact that you have cancer, you’re in the happy position of being able to notice its benefits. So many emerged in my life, which is why I called this book The Joy of Cancer. Amrita disapproved. So did my daughters. “Aren’t you stretching things a bit?” they said. So I made up my mind to list those benefits, explain what I was talking about. And thinking about these benefits helped me towards a greater acceptance of the disease. Especially during the times when I was suffering the side effects of chemotherapy.

First, the air in the house changed drastically for the better. There used to be a pall of nicotine smoke hanging over it. I had been a heavy smoker all my adult life. 30 to 40 cigarettes a day for over 35 years. Nearly 500,000 cigarettes, I estimated. The children had always disliked my smoking. Like all smokers, I had made brave but unsuccessful attempts to give up. These attempts lasted all of five to seven days and then sure enough, back I was to this repulsive habit. The house had a stale smell always. Filthy ashtrays. The smell had permeated the fabric of the house, the curtains, the sofas, my hair, my skin. It was the same case with my office. I don’t know how many passive smokers I must have initiated. Addicts are shameless and selfish because it was only when I was told I had lung cancer did the desire for tobacco disappear. I had no withdrawal symptoms either. Never will a cigarette cross my lips again. I am beginning to feel healthier. My energy levels have increased. “Have I not benefited?” I asked my daughters. So have they, in fact, since they are no longer passive smokers.

Second, I learned who my friends are. It’s a hugely comfortable feeling. We all go through life wondering whether we’ve invested our energies and our affections in the right people. Now I know. The line between those who care and those who don’t is clearly drawn when you’re in trouble. As the news that I had cancer spread among friends and family, I was flooded with telephone calls, visitors and ‘get well soon’ messages. They came from all corners of the world, old college friends whom I had very little to do with in decades. The first surprise was that I knew so many people, had so many well-wishers. They gave me words of encouragement. They boosted my spirits. They helped me overcome my initial fears. They gave me advice from the experiences of friends and relatives. They brought books for me to read. Took the trouble even, to order some titles on the internet. Soon I had one of the largest libraries on the subject. They downloaded relevant extracts from the internet and gave me printouts. They held my hand in hospital. They comforted Amrita and my daughters. The result: I suddenly felt wanted. I suddenly had a strong desire to win the war against cancer. It strengthened my resolve. Above all, it created bonds that I hadn’t succeeded in creating all my life.

Third, I was freed from the vicious cycle of workaholism. Often I had worked late into the night either at home or at office. Family holidays were not on my agenda. Amrita was angry, the children were repeatedly disappointed when plans to leave town were cancelled. It had become so bad that nobody even suggested a holiday anymore. I myself was perpetually irritable and exhausted. Initially, I was terrified when I realized I had no office to go to anymore. And then gradually, as I began to introspect, to read, to play bridge again (a past passion) and surf the internet, I became a more ‘normal’ and laid-back person. As a result, I found my lost family. Despite the cancer, the sounds of laughter and conversation could be heard in my home again. I began to look at life with a new perspective. My identity was no longer in my suit, my tie, and my polished shoes. I was free. It was a new life. It was different. It was what I had dreamed of for a long time and not known how to achieve.

As time elapsed, I also became spiritual. I found solace and peace in Buddhist chanting and meditation. On some days, I could spend hours observing time pass by. Stare through my window and observe the marvels of nature. The different shades of green on the leaves outside. Hear the birds chirp. Listen to the distant barking of stray dogs. The sound of an occasional aircraft that flew overhead. Simple things began to give me joy. Things that I had not noticed in years. It was ironical that in the face of death, I began, for the first time, to really live.

Of course the odds were against me but it is important to accept both the bad and the good. The human soul at peace is strong ammunition against malignant cells.

Can cancer differentiate between people? How is it that some people survive the disease and others don’t? Some of it has to do with tension. Cancer, or any other illness for that matter, is reason enough to increase tension in your life. As a cancer patient, you can do without tension and negative feelings. Once you are aware, once you have accepted the truth, you are on the road to health. Medical advice and treatment is only half the fight. The balance is in your own hands.

Extracted from The Joy of Cancer by Anup Kumar, published by Rupa Books. Reproduced with permission. All rights of the author and the publisher are reserved.

Anup Kumar is a post-graduate in nuclear physics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and author of the book The Joy of Cancer.