Meet Sunil Issar: Director, founder, cancer thriver and an inspiration to anyone looking to quit smoking


Sunil Issar’s career trajectory is as interesting as it is varied. The 53-year-old, who is now a gaming tech startup founder and documentary director, started his career as a trainee in 1987 with the ITC Group, and continued to work in management for 27 years before becoming an independent consultant and pro bono mentor micro and mini enterprises in the manufacturing sector in the areas of innovation and organisational development.

In 2013-14, Sunil also served as Dean of Residence and Administrative at his alma mater, St. Stephen's College, in Delhi. Post this stint, Sunil began his entrepreneurial journey by starting two private limited companies in 2016-17 - one in the media space as a documentary production house and the other, a unique game show currently in stealth mode.

From puffs to packs - how it all began

Sunil first started smoking while at boarding school at the age of 15 - an odd cigarette stolen from a teacher’s packet, a pack that someone brought back from home at the beginning of term, or loose cigarettes bought and smoked while out on treks. “With adolescence came the need to challenge all established rules, says Sunil about his early years as a smoker, “despite the implications of being rusticated from school, if caught.”

A rebellious pastime becomes a habit

By the time he joined the college in 1984, Sunil was a regular smoker and smoked around a pack of 20 cigarettes a day, switching to bidis when low on funds. Having swum competitively at the university-level and played soccer for college, he didn't notice any effect on his health or stamina. With a job and a regular income, Sunil then upgraded his brand preference and stabilised at around 12 to 15 cigarettes a day - spaced out from the first one as soon as he woke up till the last after-dinner smoke.

Cancer, a milestone birthday, and quitting

It was nearly 25 years after his first cigarette that Sunil thought of calling it quits, with a plan to announce it to his friends at a massive party for his 40th birthday. However, in early September 2006, just before the landmark birthday, fate had different plans for him. He was diagnosed with stage-3 oral cancer. It was then - even before the biopsy result came back - that Sunil went cold turkey and willed himself to quit smoking.

The toughest moments of his journey

Sunil spent his 40th birthday in the hospital ICU, recovering from an intensive 12-hour-surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes and plastic surgery to remove the inner lining of his cheek and reconstruct his face. While focusing on his medical interventions probably helped him on his quitting journey, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation meant he was out of work for about 100 days.

Support from the inner circle

Sunil came back to work severely facially disfigured and with strict dietary restrictions. His close circle of friends, who were also his smoking buddies at work, were extremely supportive and understanding. Once he was back in office, they showed him the consideration of not smoking when he was around - even during social occasions. 13 years later, Sunil is confident he can hang around with a group of people smoking, and not feel any urge to light up a cigarette.

Life beyond cancer, and smoking

Post his surgery in September 2006, Sunil continued in a corporate role till the end of 2009 - ostensibly to prove to himself that he was capable of handling a high-pressure full-time senior management role with frequent travel, managing large teams and continuously learning new skills. It was in this time that he was also certified as an Executive Coach, mentoring managers in a number of different Aditya Birla Group companies. Today, he co-owns a company that makes documentary films and has taught himself the requisite skills including operating high-end cameras, if necessary. His firm works in a niche of training films on various equipment as well as awareness films for NGOs. His other entrepreneurial venture involves developing a tech platform for game shows.

On becoming a cancer coach

“Living with cancer is a reality that we can’t ignore,” says Sunil on his efforts to use his own experiences and his coaching skills to inspire cancer patients and fellow thrivers. “What is important is how we choose to deal with it at a personal level as well as a family unit. A positive approach has benefited me and I’d like to share that. More than 50 percent of the battle is in the mind and once that is primed, the recovery seems smoother. The reality is that each of us will die someday, so it is not about avoiding death but enjoying a higher quality of life while you are alive,” he adds.

Sunil’s advice to someone who wants to quit

“You need to decide for yourself that you want to quit. No dramatics, no theatrics,” says Sunil on what he thinks would work for people interested in quitting smoking.

“Find something that will fill those gaps in time that you used for your sutta break. Discover other venues to find that camaraderie that you had over the communal ashtray in the designated smoking zone. Be aware that you may have mood swings or flashes of irritation and address them. Your family and inner circle also have a role in understanding that you need to be kept preoccupied. Watch your diet as one of the ways smokers try and compensate is by snacking and overeating,” adds Sunil as he signs-off.

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