How cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s mother helped him fight cancer, and is now backing others battling the disease
In his autobiography The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back, where Yuvraj Singh chronicles his cricketing life and his tryst with cancer, he pens a moving tribute to his mother, Shabnam Singh, in the beginning.
“To my mother, Shabnam Singh
This book is not about me; it’s the story of a brave mother.
A mother who has given me birth twice.
Someone said rightly, God can’t be everywhere so he
made mothers. I can tell you I saw that.”
It goes without saying that Shabnam has played a huge role in Yuvraj’s life, shaping his career as a brilliant cricketer, and helping him battle some of the lowest lows in his life.
Shabnam Singh with Yuvraj Singh
She also helms Yuvraj’s YouWeCan Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works towards cancer control in India and helping in the early detection of cancer and its treatment.
To understand Shabnam’s journey, Yuvraj’s success, his fight with cancer, and their combined dreams to help others, it’s imperative to hear the story of a mother who faced challenges at every turn, but still came out shining.
A sportswoman herself, Shabnam gave up her passion for basketball when she got married early to a sportsman. She became a mother at the age of 19, and with a husband absent for most of the time, she was juggling things on her own – looking after her two children, their education, and her in-laws.
A life filled with challenges
“When things didn’t work out with my husband, we separated, and life only got tougher. There were financial issues and it was difficult to make ends meet. Gradually, with Yuvraj’s entry into the world of cricket, our lives got better. However, challenges were always by my side. Whether it was Yuvraj’s professional life or his cancer, life always threw some harsh and painful challenges at me, but I knew I couldn’t give up. Everything I went through taught me some valuable lessons, and I am determined to share my learning and experiences with people and give back to society,” she says.
Shabnam says Yuvraj and she had always shared a great bond, and she was his mother, friend, philosopher, and guide. She knew that she wasn’t just shaping the future of her son as a cricketer, but creating hope for millions of other young, deserving children.
“While I knew Yuvraj was going to make it big in cricket, the journey was challenging - whether it was being called too young to play for Ranji trophy or suffering jaundice right after he was selected for a series. As a mother, I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel dejected and lose his focus. What I wasn’t prepared for was the stardom and attention he received once he made it to the under-19 cricket team,” she recalls.
Along the way, as a mother, she also had to make sure Yuvraj was grounded, was able to face the pressure, and stay focused on the field.
A mother’s hope for her son
After an exhilarating high of winning the World Cup in 2011, Yuvraj was diagnosed with mediastinal seminoma, a rare form of cancer. It was almost as if the world came crashing down. As a parent, it was the biggest challenge for Shabnam to see him go through hell and back.
“No mother in this world would ever want to hear that her child has been diagnosed with a deadly disease. On days preceding this diagnosis, we were on a high. Yuvraj had played exceptionally well on the field, he was a healthy person with great eating habits and exercising routine, and he did everything right. The news was devastating to the point that we didn’t believe or register it. It took us a long time to accept reality, but I couldn’t afford to break down,” she says.
“It took all my strength and determination to accept the fact that this was happening. But, I had to keep my emotions aside and be strong for Yuvraj. We took inspiration from all our learnings over the years, my spiritual guru’s motivating words, and just focused on battling this together. My life revolved around Yuvraj all those months. It was physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, but the hope that my child would survive at the end of all this kept me going. Once we were back in India, it was tough for Yuvraj, both physically and mentally, but our faith kept us going,” Shabnam adds.
This experience led Shabnam to the realisation that while Yuvraj could afford the best care, not many cancer patients in India were able to get an early diagnosis or possess the right knowledge/resources to fight the disease.
With this thought, the YouWeCan Foundation was formed.
Offering courage and hope
Shabnam with her sons Yuvraj and Zoravar
The mother-son duo aims to support cancer patients and their families, offer them courage, strength, and hope.
Shabnam explains: “Our vision is to empower India to defeat cancer. We are focusing on four key areas - awareness, screening, treatment support, and survivor empowerment. We strongly believe the key to fight cancer lies in awareness and screening. The mortality rate in India is 4 to 6x higher than the US; 70 percent cases are detected in the advanced stage and 85 percent Indian families cannot afford treatment. More than one-third of the cancer cases can be prevented and another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly.""
To this end, the Foundation organises awareness and screening camps in rural areas, with a focus on oral, breast, and cervical cancer in addition to tobacco cessation counselling; anti-tobacco workshops in schools and colleges; and awareness workshops in corporate offices, residential complexes, community centres, shopping complexes, and hospitals. It has screened over 150,000 people till date.
The YWC cancer treatment fund for pediatric patients provides financial assistance for the treatment of eligible cancer patients. Patients below the age of 16 years belonging to underprivileged backgrounds are supported under this fund. It has partnered with the government and charitable hospitals to implement this initiative.
The Foundation also offers the YouWeCan Scholarship, which helps cancer survivor students from underprivileged backgrounds reintegrate into the formal education system.
So far, the Foundation has sensitised 30,000 on self-breast examination, supported 150 cancer survivor students supported through the YWC scholarship, sensitised 125,000 students through anti-tobacco workshops, and counselled 24,000 men on tobacco cessation.
Shabnam narrates a story of a single mother, whose eight-year old son, Tanuj, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease - cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a vital part of the immune system. On the recommendation of relatives, his family took him to AIIMS, Delhi, where he underwent treatment for six months. The total cost of treatment exceeded Rs 5 lakh, and to meet and support Tanuj’s treatment, his mother had to sell the only valuable asset she had: her jewellery.
But since that didn’t cover the entire cost of treatment, she was also forced to take a loan. A social worker told her about YWC’s Scholarship for Cancer Survivors, and she immediately applied. After completing the documentation and due diligence procedures, her application was approved and Tanuj was awarded the scholarship. He is now a Class 5 student at Dagar Public School, Delhi.
The Foundation also recently executed several multiple campaigns for COVID-19 relief in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Unicef. It also joined the fight against the coronavirus in a joint initiative with Paytm and Lifebuoy to raise Rs 1.8 crore and distribute one million hygiene kits.
“I aim to keep working with Yuvraj and the Foundation to create awareness and help patients envision the bright future that lies ahead of them by spreading hope and courage,” Shabnam says.