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As per India Against Cancer, an estimated 2.5 million people are currently living with cancer in India. While cancer is detected in over seven lakh new people every year in the country, around 5.56 lakh die due to cancer annually. Cancer, for long, has been a disease, which is dreaded my many. Though the medical advancement has increased the rate of survival among cancer patients, the treatment often leaves a lifelong impact on an individual and on the entire family. Fighting with cancer is certainly not easy but there are some people who not only fight and defeat the life threatening disease, but also become an inspiration for other cancer patients in the process. They are also an inspiration for people who get bogged down by problems in their lives. Nation Next, in its new series #ConqueringCancer, will tell you about such people who have not only won over cancer but have also turned their lives around completely!
In the first story under #ConqueringCancer, Nation Next speaks to Ritika Kothari, who is a cancer survivor. Ritika who battled with cancer for a couple of years, today manages the lifestyle design store Casa Quirky in Nagpur. Ritika, who’s now settled in Mumbai, in an interview speaks about her fight against cancer, the troubles she went through and tells us how cancer changed her perspective towards life.
How and when did you come to know that you were suffering from cancer? How did it impact your mind and life?
In November 2014, I felt some pain in my neck. When I consulted the doctor, he told me that it was just neck sprain. Somehow, I felt that there was more to it than just neck sprain. So, I showed it to my mother who is a cancer specialist. She discovered lumps on my neck and immediately called a doctor, who then did a FNAC (Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology), which is generally used to diagnose tuberculosis. The doctor after that asked us to do a FNAC again. It was then that I felt that may be it was something graver than tuberculosis. One day, while I was out, my mother called me up and asked me to come home immediately. When I reached home, I saw all my family members hooked to Google, which I found very strange. They sat me down and told me that I was suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Cancer of the Lymphatic system, which is part of human’s immune system), Stage III.
Initially I just laughed it off. When I goggled about the disease myself, I was suddenly at loss of words. I couldn’t believe I had cancer. I was scared and I couldn’t sleep for many nights. The fact that I would have to undergo an extensive treatment including chemotherapy in just another ten days disturbed me. I’m an extremely outgoing and social person. So it was difficult for me, when I was asked not to go out often because I was now prone to infections. Cancer also affected my career. I was teaching somewhere when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had to quit my job because of my disease. Even after my complete treatment, I could not work as much as I used to before.
Death’s the only thing, which comes to a person’s mind when he comes to know that he’s suffering from cancer…
Yes. Even I thought I was going to die. I was very scared. But, eventually I managed to overcome my fear of the disease.
Having come to know of it all of a sudden, how did you prepare yourself for the fight against cancer? How hard was it to come to terms with it?
For a month, it was very chaotic. I couldn’t sleep at all. I would Google things a lot. I was in a very negative phase of my life. I would often question myself, ‘Why me?’ But then, eventually, I came to terms with my condition. I stopped thinking that I was going to die and braced myself for the fight with cancer. It wasn’t easy. It was acceptance that this is going to be my life for a couple of years is what helped me come to terms with cancer. I asked everybody around me; my friends and my family to be as normal as possible as I knew that it was only normalcy, which would help me in the difficult time I was going through.
Cancer treatment involves a lot of complex and difficult methods like Chemotherapy, which takes a toll on a person not just physically and emotionally but also financially. Can you please describe the struggle you went through during your treatment?
Once, I got into the cycle of chemotherapy, which was extensive and tiring, I couldn’t even get up from my bed for most of the days. I had to take treatment after every 15 days and its side effects would last for seven-eight days. So, I had very few good days left to myself in a month. In those good days, I could talk, walk around freely and do other things. To forget the pain, I would sometimes watch the US sitcom 'Friends,' read positive books and meditate. These things would help me stay positive.
When you go through such a treatment, you are bound to face not only physical pain but also emotional pain. For a woman, it is very traumatic to lose her hair. There were other side effects too. I faced neuropathy (malfunction of nerves), my eyes got weak, which would not allow me to watch television for a long time and I couldn’t read much. Another major side effect was hallucination. Fortunately, as both of my parents are affluent doctors, we didn’t face any problem financially.
When you lost your hair post chemotherapy, you faced the situation bravely and went through a transformation with the help of a stylist. What inspired you to do that?
I was always very possessive about my hair. Before cancer, I had beautiful straight hair and I would often go to my stylist and style them up. But, when I started losing my hair because of the treatment, I went to my stylist and got them removed entirely!
For some time, my hair did not grow on one side of my head due to the side effects of chemotherapy. My stylist helped me by covering that up with different hair styles. I wore a wig for some months, which I got it designed by another stylist friend of mine. I would wear the wig at business meetings as I wanted to feel normal and did not want anybody to know about my treatment. I also did not want to mix my personal and professional life. Also, I didn’t want them to judge me on the basis of my problem.
How important a role did your family play during your cancer treatment?
My family played a very important role during my fight with cancer. When you have a disease like cancer, you cannot go out often as your immunity is very low. You cannot be exposed to too many people as there is always a danger of contracting infection. The first thing I told my family was to get back to their normal routine. That in turn helped me get back to my normal routine. I asked them not to be around me all the time or give me sympathy because it would make me remember that something is wrong with me. I think family support is must when you’re dealing with any disease. It would have been impossible for me to fight cancer without the support of my family.
How did cancer change your perspective towards life?
Before cancer, I was just like any normal person running behind things like money, career, love, etc. After I was detected with cancer, I got the time to sit down and think about things, which I actually wanted in life. Cancer made me introspect a lot. When I had cancer and I was not allowed to go out often, I would sometimes, go out for short drives in an air conditioned vehicle. The only place I was allowed to go to was at my best friend’s house. We would just sit, paint and talk random things. Cancer made me realize that I would have never done this in my normal regular life. Now, I do things, which actually make me happy. Some time back, I felt that work was getting monotonous and I felt the need to explore more. So I took a break for a couple of months. That break gave me the idea of starting my video series and designing the ‘House of Ritika.’ Now, I have started taking frequent breaks, which give me chance to introspect about my life and keep me happy.
Tell us more about ‘House of Ritika.’
After going through cancer, I realized that there are hardly any forums in India, which discuss real life issues of people. These days, people on social media post selfies and glamorous pictures. Such posts create a wrong impression on people about life. So, I thought of creating a platform - House of Ritika - where people can come and talk about their real life issues. These discussions are shot and form part of an online talk show known as - Reveal. The theme of Reveal is: People talking about unconventional things. The show consists of discussions with authors, musicians, cancer survivors, etc., about their actual problems. We are also planning to launch videos and blogs about mental health.
#ConqueringCancer is a series by Nation Next consisting of inspiring stories of cancer survivors. If you know a cancer survivor, whose story has the capacity to give others strength or if you're a cancer survivor yourself, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.