This story is sponsored by HCG
The course of Dr Keerti Tewari’s life has changed more than once over the years. Although a trained doctor, she never practised medicine and decided to join the Civil Services. The former Bengaluru resident, who has called Delhi home since September 2013, was to face a far bigger challenge in 2007. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 14, 2007. You know how there are some dates that will always stay with you. This is one of those.”
Her first reaction was one of complete terror. “I thought I was going to die.”
Then followed loads of self-pity. She asked herself, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” There was also that all-too-familiar sense of being in denial when she desperately hoped that the report wasn’t hers and that they had mistakenly given her someone else’s.
“I was afraid that I would never see my daughter Asavari grow up. She was only nine at the time. She was sitting next to me when I told her about my diagnosis. I hugged her and started crying. Seeing me cry, she started crying too. Then, she asked me why I was crying and I told her that I had a serious illness and that I did not know if I would survive.”
“She said, ‘But I thought you had a lump in your breast.’ When I told her it was breast cancer, she pulled away and asked me to stop crying. She told me that Australian popstar Kylie Minogue had breast cancer years ago, and that she had seen her perform at a concert recently. She said if Kylie could recover, so could I. She never let me cry after that. If she saw me crying, she would say, ‘Crying doesn’t cure cancer.’ She was my biggest support.”
Keerti decided that she would not delay treatment for a moment. As soon as she got the report that the lump was malignant, she did rounds of several hospitals before finding a doctor she thought she could develop a rapport with. She started her first cycle of chemotherapy on May 21, 2007. The doctor prescribed Neoadjuvent chemotherapy – a course of treatment under which she had to undergo two cycles of chemotherapy first, followed by surgery, and four more cycles of chemotherapy. “This treatment helps the doctor see if the tumour is responding to the chemotherapy or not.”
The side effects were very debilitating and often, Keerti felt like giving up chemotherapy. “I thought it was just not worth it, and that I could not go through all this physical and mental torture. But then I told myself that there was a silver lining; a light at the end of the tunnel. I felt I could not give up and I had to live for my child, my family, and myself. There were so many things that I wanted to do in my life, and I felt I hadn’t achieved anything. That resolve to go on helped me overcome what I was going through.”
Apart from her daughter’s precocious empathy, Keerti credits her family – husband Rakesh Tiku, parents and in-laws – and their unstinting support for helping her get through this trying time. She is particularly in awe of Asavari who, despite being so young at the time, kept dinning into her that breast cancer was curable and that she was going to be okay. “I was also fortunate to get very good doctors. They allayed my apprehensions and reassured me that there are so many ways and means to treat the cancer now.”
She also revived interest in painting to keep her mind diverted during this time. “I used to paint when I was in school and college. But over the years, as with most of us, I got caught up with my job and with family life, and had stopped painting. I picked it up again. Just the flow of the brush would help ease my anxiety, my pain.” She also read a lot during her treatment. Basically a fiction fan, she also read a lot of self-help books and listened to a lot of music to ease the stress.
With one of the most traumatic times of her life behind her, Keerti joined hands with three other survivors in Bengaluru to start the Pink Hope Cancer Support Group to help others cope with their treatment mentally and emotionally. “This was in 2009, and the group is still going strong and growing. We do a lot of counselling. Now that I am in Delhi, I do the counselling over the phone. While it started as a support group for breast cancer survivors, today the group has expanded and we have a lot of other cancer survivors helping out.”
Keerti underscores the importance of counselling. “When a doctor says you are going to be fine, you usually take it with a pinch of salt. But when you interact with someone who has been in your position, it really helps. Doctors don’t have the time to answer questions that are perceived as trivial, and patients are also hesitant to ask.” She cites an example about nails turning black during chemo. Now, to a doctor, that does not always matter if there are other signs that show improvement. “But for a woman, when she sees her nails turning black, she does not know if it is normal or not. She may be hesitant to ask. However, if I (as a survivor) tell her that nothing is wrong and that it will get better after chemo, she will believe me.”
She always tells people that the small things help you through the hard times. “Take it one day at a time and live from moment to moment. And never give up.”
Stressing the importance of early detection and treatment, Keerti says, “The most important thing to focus on in cancer is ‘can’…that you can do it and can overcome it. We have to remember that. I felt the most important thing, at least during my treatment, was my attitude. As long as I was weepy and crying and thinking that I was never going to get better, my body felt that way too. The day I decided that I was going to get over this, my attitude changed and I started feeling much better. I feel attitude is the most important aspect of recovery.”
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.