Seema woke up in the morning with a new energy that she never felt before. To wake up and realise that you don’t have cancer is a feeling that cannot be put into words.
As she made breakfast for her family, she remembered that there were months when she could not wake up in the mornings due to fatigue. She could not cook during that time because every smell made her nauseous. Remembering all this made the experience of cooking that breakfast all the more enjoyable.
As the weeks turned into months, words like CT scan and chemotherapy began to disappear from their conversations.
The only reminder of the treatment was the single pill she took after dinner daily. It was part of her hormone treatment and she took it at the same time every day to avoid forgetting it. It was just another part of her daily routine, like brushing her teeth.
The medical file containing all the test reports remained at the back of the cupboard. New items now crowded the cupboard and the file was out of sight.
The file was only brought out when it was time for her routine visits to her oncologist. She was advised to visit once in three months for the first two years. This was just for a regular clinical examination where the doctor would conduct a physical examination. Seema was well aware that during the visits if there was any suspicion, she would have to undergo investigations accordingly.
These hospital visits were reduced to once every six months after the first two years of treatment. And further reduced to yearly visits after the first five years.
Once every six months, Seema had to go in for a chest x-ray and an ultrasound abdomen. This too was routine and the reports never gave them anything to worry about.
Similarly, once a year, Seema had to get a sonomammography (breast ultrasound) done. Since she was 35 years old, a mammography was not advisable for her. Her oncologist told her that mammograms are more sensitive to detecting abnormalities in older women.
Life after cancer seemed sweeter and more precious, because she had come close to losing it. Now even little things like being able to carry her son in her arms, or go for a morning jog seemed like a privilege.
After the first four months, Seema’s hair reached her neck and she picked up a hair brush again. In six months time, she had to start using hair clips to keep her hair from falling on her face. When she saw herself in the mirror, she almost wept with joy.
Seema’s menstrual periods had stopped during chemotherapy and even now they had not started again. The oncologist explained that this was nothing to worry about as it was an expected side-effect of the cancer treatment. Most young women resume their periods by the end of one year post-treatment.
As time progressed, life became very much like the old life they knew and loved. Seema again had her own share of chores to do, her office work to complete and relatives to answer.
But now, none of these things seemed as much a bother as they used to. She was glad to have the chance to experience even the not so pleasant parts of life.
It took sometime, but the anxiety slowly left Rohan as well. He was no longer constantly asking her how she was feeling. He was not scared of every routine blood test that she had to go for. He was not panicking if she complained of a small ache or of tiredness now and then.
The most important part of Seema’s daily routine now was the time she spent doing her arm exercises. She did them daily to prevent lymphedema (swelling up of the arm). No matter what important work was left pending, she made sure that there was time for these exercises.
Seema, had by now realised the importance of self care. She made sure that she ate a healthy balanced diet. She no longer felt guilty about setting some time out for herself so that she could do things she enjoyed.
Once a week, she made time to practise her watercolor painting. This was a hobby from her college days which she had forgotten as life got more hectic. Now, she began to enjoy it again as it helped her relax. This ‘me time’ was important for her mental wellbeing and it was not a luxury but a necessity.
She continued the meditation activity that she had started during chemotherapy. She felt like her physical health was connected to her mental wellbeing. She felt healthier and could do more on days when her mind was calm and happy.
She also became increasingly active in the cancer support circle Talk Your Heart Out. She loved mentoring cancer patients by using her experience to motivate them. She also gave talks at her workplace and at her son’s school on breast cancer awareness.
In these talks Seema always said, “There is a stigma around cancer in our society. No one wants to talk about it. But the more we talk about it, the easier it will become to prevent and detect it early.”
Seema taught all her friends about breast self-examination and screening. “There is no reason to feel shy discussing topics that can save you life”, she told them. And they in turn taught their own mothers, sisters and neighbours about it. In this way, Seema started a human chain of awareness and sisterhood around breast health.
Of course, there were still some moments of weakness. There were still times when she went down that familiar path of wondering “What if I get cancer again?” Once she even had a nightmare that she had felt another lump in her breast and she woke up sweating.
Seema realised that such fears might never leave her. After all, it was not impossible for her to get cancer again. In fact, not just breast cancer, but even other cancers can occur in women who have already completed treatment for breast cancer.
When she realised she could not escape these fears completely, she started accepting them. Yes, she was scared of cancer and it was okay. No one wants to have cancer.
But she also knew that if she got cancer again, she would try even harder than before to beat it. This time, she would not be the scared new girl who knew nothing about cancer. She would be the defending champion.
As for Rohan, he now proudly introduces his wife to everyone like this, “This is my wife Seema. Don’t start any arguments with her. Cancer tried it once and gave up and ran for its life.”
And in this manner, the journey of a breast cancer patient came to an end, and the journey of a breast cancer survivor began.
Watch this message from Dr Upasana Saxena on life after breast cancer: