This story is sponsored by HCG.
Sidharth Ghosh has been running all his life: on the cricket ground and football field in school, and as a marathon runner for over a decade. But when life threw him a seemingly insurmountable challenge, he hit the pause button to turn around and fight.
In January 2014, Sidharth, then 34, was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, commonly known as kidney cancer. “It did come as a shock. I had just run the marathon, and even played a corporate cricket match the day before. I went in for some tests and noticed blood in my urine. That was when the doctors discovered a growth on my right kidney that was bigger than a golf ball. In fact, the growth practically covered the whole kidney!”
Judging by the size of it, the doctors concluded that the tumour must have been growing for over five years. “I realised that I had actually run five marathons with the cancer growing inside my body without showing any symptoms.”
Although he did initially feel sorry for himself, agonising over what he had done to deserve this, there was no time to dwell on self-pity. Doctors advised immediate surgery and removed his right kidney.
Recounting his post-operative recovery, Sidharth says, “When you are diagnosed with cancer, there are different aspects you must deal with. There is the emotional aspect, the physical aspect, and then there is the financial aspect. Obviously, I could see physical changes in my body. The doctors had to remove one kidney, a ureter, three arteries, four veins, one lymph node and some peripheral tissue. I could barely stand for 10 minutes or climb four steps even 10 days after surgery.”
He had lost a lot of blood during surgery. “I needed a transfusion. Two friends who donated blood joked to him later, ‘Bengalis are all similar. Subhash Chandra Bose asked for blood in exchange for freedom. We had to give blood so that you could come out of hospital.’”
His cousin Vrinda, a doctor herself, was given the responsibility of getting him to move from bed. “Moving around was so exhausting that at times, I would find it very difficult to even walk a few steps. She was with me for hours on end, ensuring that I did get up. All through that time, I was thinking about when I could get back to my sports.”
Unlike other cancer treatments, chemotherapy and radiation were not an option. “It would not have worked in my case. There is a third line of therapy called immunotherapy, designed to boost the body's natural defences to fight the cancer. It uses substances either made by the body or in a laboratory to improve or restore immune system function. But it is still in the experimental stage; so I was always under strict observation,” he says.
Sidharth cites two role models, who inspired his drive to recover. “Yuvraj Singh and Lance Armstrong really played a big role in my recovery. Unfortunately, in India, people are still unwilling to share their stories because they still feel there is a huge stigma attached to cancer. I kept telling myself that if two of the fittest men in their respective countries can get cancer, fight it, and get back to their peak fitness levels, then I could too. I promised myself that I would be back on the running track as soon as possible.”
The road to recovery did take time and it was three or four months before Sidharth could walk properly. He single-mindedly built that up to a brisk walk and eight months after his surgery, he ran a half marathon. And exactly one year later, in January 2015, he ran the full marathon.
“Speed was not a concern. I wanted to finish without any pain, without any injury, and without harming myself. I still had scars so I had to be careful. My doctors were very supportive. They said running was a part of my life and they did not want me to compromise. They encouraged me to return to doing the things I loved, but told me to do it gradually.”
Sidharth even played a corporate cricket match 333 days after surgery. He received a warm welcome from his old mates and the team even went on to win the match.
Sidharth credits his passion for fitness for his remarkable recovery, saying with pride how one of his surgeons said the inside of his body was like that of a 20-year-old! They also told him that while the incisions and scars normally took up to two years to heal completely, they expected his body to repair itself sooner because of his fitness level.
“I really believe that running and being a sportsman has helped. A positive environment also really makes a difference. My family and friends were always around me, cracking jokes and encouraging me. My parents were always there for me. They are doctors and know how bad it can be. In fact, I wanted to recover more for them than me!”
Today, Sidharth is actively involved in doing his bit for society. He is associated with HCG and multiple NGOs that work with cancer. “I wanted to start my own support group, Renal Way, as very few people talk about kidney cancer.”
He has an insight to convey to people. “My advice is never show [misplaced] sympathy to someone who is undergoing all this. I did throw out a few people from my life who were always negative. My thought process has also changed and I value relationships, friendships, and life more. There are times when we stop talking to people due to ego issues. Life is much bigger than all this.”
He believes that we are not fighting cancer, but the fear of cancer. The word itself has become so scary that people think if you have cancer, then life is over. But that is not the case. “What’s important is to be positive, and fight it head on. Let the doctors do their job: your attitude decides whether you are winner or a victim. Cancer may have started this fight, but it’s I who finished it.”