This story is sponsored by HCG.
At first glance, you could easily mistake Ruchi Dilbagi for one of the 20-somethings clocking in for their shift at the entrance to the Bengaluru call centre where she works. She is, in fact, Manager - Direct Marketing, for one of India’s biggest banks. Her cheerful demeanour belies the fact that life has not been all smooth sailing for her.
Ever the banker, 41-year-old Ruchi says the first thing that crossed her mind when told about her cancer diagnosis, was, “Will I lose my job? And, will I get insurance coverage?”
Her concerns were not unfounded. In 2009, the bank she worked for in the United Arab Emirates shut down, forcing her to return to India without a job. A single mother, she was also separated from her son, who had to stay back in the UAE to complete his education.
After a two-year hiatus, in July 2012, she joined a leading Indian bank and was put in charge of vendor management for South India. “In December that year, I discovered a lump in my breast during a self-exam. But, I decided to ignore it at the time because I had just started a new job. The high pressure JFM (January-February-March) quarter was coming up, and I was so wrapped up in my work that I did not focus on my health. I visited my gynaecologist who recommended we first try and treat the lump with medication. When it persisted, she asked me to get a biopsy done. I went for my tests the following month, and in April 2013, it was confirmed as malignant”
She was advised immediate surgery, followed by chemotherapy.
Though back at work soon after surgery, Ruchi needed certain adjustments once the chemotherapy started. The bank allowed her to work out of its Yelahanka branch, which was close to her home, rather than her usual space at the call centre, where her low immunity levels would have made her susceptible to infection, owing to the large number of employees who worked there through the day.
Despite her poor health, Ruchi was determined to be fully committed to her job, especially since she had been unemployed for so long. “Also, I did not want people to think I was incapable because I was unwell, or that I was taking undue advantage using my health as an excuse,” says Ruchi. “But everyone – my family in India and people at work – was very supportive.”
Her employer also helped cover her medical expenses even though she had been working with them for just a few months. “I was eligible for an annual health insurance coverage of Rs 4 lakh from my company. Despite having worked there for only a short time, I was given my full entitlement, and I only had to pay the remaining Rs 2 lakh for the treatment, which cost Rs 6 lakh.”
Ruchi’s first chemotherapy cycle went well and she did not experience the usual side effects. “There was no tiredness, no nausea, nothing…none of the things we read about manifested. So I decided I would work as usual and started going to the call centre every day.”
The chemotherapy was scheduled every 21 days. She would go to the hospital at night and home in the morning. “You’re supposed to rest for two days after the chemotherapy as things can get difficult. On the third day, I would be back at work, and would have forgotten any trouble I had gone through in the previous days.”
However, the real complications associated with chemotherapy began after the fourth cycle. “I had ulcers in my food pipe and could only swallow tender coconut water and buttermilk. I refused to go for my fifth round of chemo. But my father, who stayed with me during the entire treatment, convinced me to go. After that, I was happy to go for the sixth cycle because I knew it was the last one.”
All through this harrowing time, she had her family’s unstinting backing. “We are three sisters and a brother. My mother is a doctor. She runs her own hospital in Jabalpur and could not come as often as she would have liked to. My dad is retired, so he was here most of the time. He took care of me as a mother would. I would come back from work and he would have a bowl of fruit for me to eat before I went for radiation. He did all the cooking and I would just eat and relax. He would wake me up each morning and force me to go for a walk.’ Exercise is very important during your treatment. People tend to forget this and that causes problems. He made sure that I ate and exercised.”
After the chemotherapy, Ruchi was told to go for radiation. Though it was for just two minutes each time, it made her skin peel and turn dark. “I had to go every day, with no gaps in between.”
She jokes about the side-effects of chemotherapy saying that the upside to losing her hair was all the money she saved on shampoo and colouring. Growing up in a Sikh family, she had always had long hair. But she intends to keep it short now and even shaves it all off when she feels like it.
After her treatment finished, Ruchi continued to go for blood tests and follow-ups every month. “My energy levels slowly picked up and I was fully involved with my work again.” She bounced back so well that last year, she got a promotion. She is now in charge of pan-India operations and travels across the country frequently.
In April 2015, however, she had a relapse. “This time, it was in my ovaries. I went back again for surgery, and they did a complete hysterectomy. Thankfully, tests showed that I did not have to go for chemotherapy or radiation. Ten days after my surgery, I was back at work.”
While saying that it was work that kept her mind off her treatment, she jokes that the one thing that keeps her occupied now on weekends is laundry. She also practises yoga and goes for Zumba classes every evening because she loves dancing, “I also go to the spa regularly as I like to pamper myself.”
This adventure sport enthusiast loves to travel and has recently returned from an all-girls holiday with her friends in Goa, where she went parasailing. In fact, she had travelled to Manali just after her chemotherapy, but was snowed in and unable to participate in any sports.
Today, Ruchi is lending her support and is a part of a community that helps others who are going through what she has.
“I am part of the Pink Hope Cancer Support Group. I have participated in Pinkathon and gone on treks with the group. My recovery changed my perception that cancer was the end. I have forced all women in my family, even my extended family, to get regular check-ups.”
Ruchi says that her battle with cancer has taught her one thing: “If you want to be happy, you can be happy, and no one can stop you. Brooding is not going to help at all.”
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.