This story is sponsored by HCG
Sashi Venkat has one motto, and that is to live life bindaas (carefree). She says this is what has got her through one of the most trying times in her life. That, and the love and support of her family and friends.
In 2008, during a self-exam, she felt a lump in her breast. She decided to do an ultrasound to check if there was anything wrong. She says, “The ultrasound did not show anything, but I still had this uncomfortable feeling that something was wrong. So, I went in for further tests, and an FNAC (fine-needle aspiration cytology) test showed it was cancer.”
Sashi points out that such a diagnosis rattled even someone as optimistic as she is, at least at first. “The first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is, ‘Oh God, why me?’ and ‘How long will I live?’ I’ve always been healthy and maintained a proper diet. But cancer can still [strike]. Of course, they say if you smoke, you run the risk of lung cancer. But no one knows why and how it comes. You also suddenly become aware of your responsibilities.”
Her family, which had no history of cancer, was understandably devastated. It took her only daughter, Priyanka, three days to come to terms with the fact. Venkat, her husband who works in the Middle East, flew down as soon as he heard the news and got down to calming everyone down. He started looking for every bit of information on the disease. “He was on Google 24/7 trying to find out what all could be done. There was a point when the doctors even joked that he knew as much as them about cancer and the treatments available!” Sashi jokes.
It took her six months to find the right doctor and hospital. Venkat took her all over the country and even abroad to help her find suitable treatment. Most doctors recommended a mastectomy, and there was even one who gave her only two years to live.
But Sashi refused to accept these diagnoses, and was determined to find the right treatment, one that she was comfortable with. Then one day, she saw an article in a newspaper on ‘cyberKnife’, a procedure involving targeted radiation. It said this procedure could shrink the lump, and that is what led her to HCG.
“I will never forget my doctor’s reaction when I told him that I had been diagnosed with cancer six months back, but was yet to start any proper treatment. He must have been wondering how someone could be so bold. I was laughing and talking to him in my usual bindaas style.”
Sashi says the cyberKnife procedure is not usually prescribed for the breast but she was determined to get it done. Once the procedure was done, doctors prescribed 10 cycles of chemotherapy.
“During those seven months, I matured a lot. I would be fine during the daytime, but the nights would be scary as there’s nothing to do. There were both good days and bad days during chemotherapy,” remembers Sashi.
Her advice to others is to remain active, talk to friends, and keep busy on the good days. “On bad days, lie down and watch a movie.” Curiously, it was thrillers and slashers that kept her going. Sashi watched every horror film her local lending library stocked during her treatment. She has a bone to pick with movies that depict cancer. “They paint such a negative picture. The minute someone is diagnosed, everyone starts crying as if the person is already dead. Sad music starts playing and, sure enough, in the end the person dies. It’s high time we had movies that show how people recover and lead normal lives.”
Thankfully, unlike movie tropes, her family stayed strong and positive during the entire treatment. “My mother, Rajyam, was there with me day in and day out: every millisecond, in fact. She took complete control of my diet and ensured that I was eating healthy food and staying hydrated all the time. Priyanka, my daughter, is a big Sai Baba devotee, and was praying all the time. She even posted the fact that I was not well on the internet, asking people to pray for me. You will not believe it, people sent udis (prayers) from all over the world. That is when you realise that the world is really full of good people.”
She specially mentions Ratna, their housekeeper, who has stayed with their family for years, and helps take care of the home. “She would be with me throughout. At times, when I had body ache during the chemo, she would be by my bed 24/7, massaging my hands and feet until I felt relief.”
Sashi’s husband was a great source of strength and positivity at the time. He kept himself in the loop of her treatment at every step and would research everything thoroughly. He was constantly motivating her, willing her to bounce back. “During my bad days, I threw a lot of tantrums. I had warned my family that I would scream at them, and that they should not take it to heart. If I have to let it out, I have to scream. I would yell for no reason and then cry later. But they never showed that it affected them. I am truly blessed with the people around me.”
This epitome of positivity says that one of the things she enjoys most is travel. “Two months after my chemo, we went to New Zealand and I went skydiving. I was still wearing a wig, but I went anyway. We also went to the Great Barrier Reef [in Australia] and went walking on the ocean bed. It unforgettable.”
One of her great dreams always has been to be a model. “My husband took us to get a photoshoot done in New Zealand. They did some light makeup before the shoot. The results looked so good. Today, I see myself on hoardings and in magazines for the SelfV campaign, and I feel so good. I also love singing and dancing and my family begs me to stop because I can’t sing or dance for nuts. But I do it anyway.
“It’s been eight years for me as a survivor, and I am doing well, and so is everyone at my support group, Pink Hope, Cancer Support Group. Some have marked 10 years and some have marked 20 as survivors, and they are all doing brilliantly. This is why I say people should not fear cancer. It’s like any other disease. It’s just the word that frightens you. The treatment is tough, but that too is a passing phase. After that, you are done with it.”
Sashi stresses the importance of finding a support group. “When I was diagnosed, there was no Pink Hope. So, my doctor put me on to a friend, and she put me on to someone else and all of us came together to form the group. A support group is important because no one other than someone going through what you have really understands. Family maybe supportive, but they may not always understand. I recently attended a session where there was a schoolteacher from Orissa who had been consistently given wrong advice, and this had gone on for more than a year. He asked me when I had my treatment, and I said 2009. He said, ‘Oh, that means I am not going to die?’ This is why a support group is important. It helps you stay positive.”
Her advice to people is simple: get regular check-ups done after a certain age. Laugh a lot. Eat healthy. Exercise. “Would crying have helped me when I had cancer? No. Learn to face and handle your problems. And always live life bindaas!”
If you have overcome cancer, or know someone who has, and can be an inspiration to others, log on to www.selfv.in to find out how to participate.
Videographers - Ashwath
Editor - Anand Prasad
Script and conceptualization - Dola Samanta