25 Jan, 2022
I am Farida Rizwan. My body is 53 years old. I am not sure about my soul and mind though. I have donned many roles in my life and being a cancer survivor is just one of them.
Cancer is a scary word. Since the days of Bollywood movies when someone would have to cough out blood to identify that they have cancer, we have come a long way in terms of diagnosing, treating and preventing this dreaded disease.
Having survived 3rd stage breast cancer for more than 2 decades, I can tell you that cancer is not what it looks like in movies – neither in the positive nor negative way. Every person will have their own cancer story, their own support system and their own take on it on how to go through it.
My life can be divided into two major halves, B.C. and A.D. Not the typical Anno Domini and Before Christ, but Before Cancer and After Diagnosis which had the same impact on my life as the Anno Domini had on the world history. Life in BC was spent like the money won from lottery, but every moment of AD was more like the hard earned money which we do not throw away but had to. It took cancer to show me how beautiful life is and what difference I can make to myself and someone else as well.
What would happen if cancer did not happen to me? May be I would have spent all my life like the money spent by the prodigal son in the bible on things and people who are not worthy of it, thus becoming a swine herd in the end. I am not sure, but it looks like I had started my journey on the road to self-destruction, without even realizing it.
Cancer is quite silent like a cockroach. You will not even know there is a silent killer dwelling in your body if you do not care to take precaution. There was a time where I was freely breastfeeding my 11 month old daughter without a slight hint that I had cancerous tumour in my breast.
All I had noticed was a small lump in my breast in the size of peanut. It was nothing much different from hardened milk clots I would get sometimes. But a week later when having a bath, I realized the lump was different. Rather than hardened milk, it felt like a bony structure.
That is when I decided to have a doctor’s opinion. She immediately told me to have a biopsy. When the reports came, my doctor told me to come back and meet another doctor the next day. He was an oncologist. Somehow I did not give it a thought and calmly walked in to meet him the next day. It was only when he announced that my report says I have breast cancer stage III, that the gravity of the situation really sunk in. I was naturally shocked.
My world changed with the utterance of three words on April 7th 1996. I still feel it in my bones, the mild shivers that ran down my spine, the sweat that wet the napkin in my hand, my burning cheeks and wild heartbeats. It is so etched in my mind that I still remember the Yellow and black sari I wore that day and also the white cotton napkin with yellow bell flowers that lay damp in my hand.
Am I dreaming? Is this real? Can this happen again in my family in a span of 4 years? On 1992, my Dad was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 1994 my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and here now it was my turn in 1996. Was it genetic? Was it our lifestyle? Were we cursed? The questions kept popping into my mind one after another.
All I could think of at the moment of shock, confusion and fear was about my children. One was my first born who was 4 years old and another just 11 month old baby girl who I had just breast fed before my visit to the doctor. It took me time to realize that just a few minutes ago this breast had been a source of nutrition for my child, and now it was something that threatened my life. Again the desperation in my mind made me question the diagnosis. I know most of us want this to be lie, but it seldom turns out the way we want once we are diagnosed.
My doctor did not take the conversation ahead. He had just paused after the announcement and waited for my response. I am not sure how long I took to respond because by the time I had opened my mouth, I was ready to go ahead with the treatment, fight the monster and live for few more years for my children and my family.
I asked my doctor, “What should I do to survive this?” I could see a glimmer in his eyes and a smile on his face, as he said “You already did that. Making a decision to survive and overcome the disease itself is a big step towards survival. Off course we will discuss the treatment options and date of surgery for removal of the cancerous tumour, because that is also required”
Like a movie, alternate future endings floated in front of me as I slowly walked back home. I looked up to my children, a 5 year old extremely emotional boy and 11 month old girl with special needs. A vivid image of them as orphans floated in front of me, they were crying for me and asking where is our ‘Maa’. I could not let this happen.
Again another image of a bald woman with one breast floated in front of me. Will I ever be a desirable woman after going through mastectomy and chemotherapy? The thought of losing the breast and symmetry of my feminine body was very painful, so was the thought of going totally bald even temporarily.
Then there was the tough part of announcing it to my family. My husband was in gulf, so he had to hear it on the phone. His outburst was, “Why is God doing this to me?” I was like, “To HIM?” but did not say it out loud. Instead I allowed him to whine how unfortunate he was, how life had always been tough for him and so on. As I walked back home, I realized that no one was expecting me to say what I was about to say. My sister was already in fourth stage of cancer and they were still struggling to cope with that. I had to tell them though. It created a complete chaos and a mixed range of emotions were unleashed ranging from anger, fear, crying, sadness, and above all confusion.
I did not know what to do. As I sat there in remorse, my son walked up to me. He was feeling insecure & scared. He had heard the hush-hush talk with my name. When you try to hide things from children it only makes them more scared hence it is always better to state things as they are. His look changed me. Moreover there was my daughter who was looking forward for me to breastfeed her not knowing that when I walked out, it was the last time I would be feeding her. She just blinked at me with her innocent smile which motivated me to fight for my life.
I wanted to live for her and be there for her. There was no way I was going to abandon my special needs child and surrender to cancer only to leave her behind to fight her battles all alone. On the other side I was neither going to desert my son or my family by just blaming cancer and allowing it to take me away!
I was not in confusion anymore. My kids were going to have me in their life as long as they wanted me. I promised them, “I have cancer, but I will see to it that cancer will never have me”. With that spirit I kicked myself into fighting mode and started my journey of living a better life than I had done ever before.
Time sometimes becomes stagnant and one loses track of it when you undergoing treatment.
Just before going to my surgery, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked at my body which would not look the same from the next day. It made me emotional but then I decided to take the fight strongly, I had to. There was no other option. I walked out stoically. Today, I regret I did not click a picture to save that memory, because with every year one’s memory becomes more blurry and the woman in the mirror is not visible clearly anymore. As much as I could, I was not able to recall how I was before my surgery.
My surgery went smoothly. I exercised my hand as per the advice of my doctor. I also started carrying my daughter to physiotherapy in few weeks. It was followed by chemotherapy which was quite difficult on my body. Somehow, with a lot of struggle I made it through the 6 months of chemotherapy. I will not say it was easy, but the 23 years of survival thought me a lot on how to go through it.
Emerging from the ordeal I was a different person. I had more value for each day I was living. I was looking for a purpose in everything I did and I had more respect and love myself. I started being stress free and enjoying my life more. I set goals for each year to be achieved and my focus was on completing them. And, not to forget I had to take care of my children as well. All this pushed cancer to the backseat. Cancer was lost in the chaos of everyday life struggles. It was not easy for me during that time to pay bills, study, learn to drive, learn to swim and build a career while taking care of my daughter, but then these challenges may have contributed to my survival by shifting my focus from cancer to life.
Cancer did not just take away my breast which I lost to total radical mastectomy, but also my judgmental character. After being through cancer for two to three years, I realized all of a sudden that I was not judging anyone. I had more sympathy for people around me.
It took away my emotional dependency on others. I became more emotionally self- reliant. Though I sought company, it was more towards promoting a healthy friendship, relationship and companionship.
Cancer gave me courage. I was a champion who had beaten the deadly beast to retreat. Whenever I face a tough moment in my life, I usually think, hey I have beaten cancer, can’t I do this?
Another realization that dawned on me during my cancer journey was the helplessness that comes with financial dependency on others. I had to make and sell soft toys, stitch dresses for boutiques and do a lot of odd jobs to take care of my financial needs during my first three years of surviving cancer. Slowly I got back to studying and today I have completed my Masters in Psychotherapy and Counseling.
I worked as a counselor on YourDost, besides counseling students and parents in schools and colleges. I live my life to the fullest by teaching, writing, reading, playing games and taking care of my new venture of starting a Preschool and daycare for tiny toddlers. I call it “My Giggle Garden”. This is going to be a place ‘where smiles grow’. I spend some quality time with my children every day which makes my life more fruitful and it is a wonderful learning experience for me. My parenting and love for my two children is my inspiration for my project. Life after cancer has been much more rewarding than before cancer.
Many people have asked me the secret for my survival. I am not sure how they would understand if I say that a major contribution comes from the Dosa my mom prepared when I was may be 10 or 11 years old.
One day as we got ready to go to school, my mom was feeling feverish and asked my aunt to prepare dosas for us. Unfortunately, not a single dosa left the pan without breaking into pieces. She blamed the pan, the batter and everything around mumbling and grumbling as she tried to deal with this. We whined that we wanted round dosas and refused to eat what she served. My mom walked into the kitchen and took over. She calmly broke an egg, used the whites to brush the pan and poured the batter. The dosa came out round and perfect. As I ate the dosa, I realize that when faced with problems, we always have two options ahead of us. Blame the problem and whine or find a solution. May be I was too young to make a decision back then, but the memory remained etched in my mind. Slowly, as life went on I realized that any blame game is our worst enemy.
When faced with cancer, I recalled the same incident. I could either whine and eat the broken pieces of dosa or fight it out by finding the right solution. It was easy to choose to whine, cry, be depressed and do nothing because I had cancer.
On the flip side from a positive perspective I could study, learn new things, make new friends, visit new places and live life to the fullest in other words I chose to fight and make round dosa. 23 years down the lane, I am still here living my imperfect life perfectly and enjoying it to the fullest.