While many of you may have read this in newspapers and textbooks, I have fought in the Kargil War. I was right there, on high-altitude terrain, about 205 kms outside Srinagar, in the chilly mountain air – an experience that was out of this world.
I have served in the Indian army for more than 20 years, so I am no stranger to challenges, uncertainty, and bodily discomforts.
First a Fall
During my time in the army, I vividly recall this one time when we were returning to our base in our artillery truck. I was sitting in the driver’s cabin while the rest of our section, about four soldiers, were in the cabin behind us.
The path we were taking was narrow, mountainous, with a steep cliff drop. I remember noticing that we were on the edge of the road and the very next second, our truck fell down the cliff.
I don’t remember what happened next but when I regained consciousness, I was hanging from the branch of a tree. I was taken to a hospital in Srinagar. I had fractures in two of my ribs, my shoulder was dislocated and the skin on my head had to be stitched back together.
As you can imagine, I was in a lot of pain. But it was the kind of pain that fills you with pride because it is in the service of your country. I was told that the rest of my section, those who were sitting in the cabin behind me, could not be found.
We later realised that they had not survived the fall. These were men whom I fought alongside.
It was after my retirement from the army that I was diagnosed with mouth cancer. My wife was so affected by this news that she was inconsolable. My children who live in Europe advised me to stay with them for the course of the treatment.
I refused as I had, and still, have complete confidence in the army hospitals of our country. They have the best surgeons and if anyone could help me, they could I was sure.
I began my treatment at the Command Hospital in Bangalore. The affected part of my mouth was surgically removed and then patched up with flesh from my forearm, which in turn was patched up with flesh from my thigh. After the surgery, there were eight rounds of chemotherapy.
Currently, I am in remission. There are several things I cannot do like I used to. My speech is less clear. I cannot drink anything without the help of a straw. When I eat, I need a bib as food dribbles out of my mouth. I have lost sensation in certain parts of my mouth and cannot control their movement. I cannot have anything spicy.
I wear a mask around my mouth as people are uncomfortable looking at my face, some even stare. This April, I plan to undergo plastic surgery. I am hoping that things will get better for me after that.
Coping with Cancer
My life in the army has taught me discipline, not just physical but also mental. Yet, it is very difficult for me to accept the effect cancer has had on my life.
At times, my mind wanders, wondering whether succumbing to the effects of war would have been better than to cancer. I agree that this is a very pessimistic thought, but only someone who has walked a mile in my shoes will know what I mean.
In our society, there is a visible stigma associated with cancer. People don’t know much about this disease. I have people who think that cancer is contagious, and have kept away from me.
This is why I wear a mask when I leave my home. I don’t want to repulse anyone with my looks. But when I see people smoking or chewing tobacco, I walk up to them and take off my mask. I ask them, “Do you want a mouth like this? If you don’t, then stop using tobacco right now.”
You will be amazed at how successful these attempts have been. I know of at least fifteen people who have given up smoking or chewing tobacco after I accosted them in this manner. I’m glad to be of use in this way!
Spread the Word
In however many years I have left in this lifetime, I would like to spread awareness about cancer. I am particularly interested in talking to people about the link between tobacco consumption and cancer.
This is a message we hear daily, when we watch a movie, or even on the packaging of cigarettes and gutka. Yet, so many people continue to consume tobacco in different forms. I want to get through to them, to convince them to stop, to help save their life.
I am very fortunate to have been treated in army hospitals, at no cost. The treatment for cancer is very expensive and it can consume the entire life-savings of your family. Most of us cannot even afford the long and expensive treatments conducted at corporate hospitals.
The sooner this stark reality sinks into the minds of everyone, the sooner they will adopt a healthier lifestyle. I do understand that not everyone who smokes develops cancer. But there is a strong link between these two. So let us reduce the risk of cancer by giving up these harmful habits.
Word of Advice
The next time you pick up a cigarette or open a packet of gutka, please remember me – the humiliation and suffering cancer has caused me. Also, remember my family who has had to share this suffering with me.
If not for yourself, then for your family, throw that piece of tobacco down. This is my most earnest advice to you. If you won’t learn from my experience, you will have to learn from your own.
*The survivor who recounts his experience in this blog is Pradeep Dixit of Kanpur. If you have a cancer story to share with us, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org