A positive attitude has helped Neerja Malik overcome cancer. She tells about what inspired her to support others battling the disease

“Think of the disease as nothing but a word,” says Neerja Malik, cancer conqueror, Counsellor and Consultant, Apollo Hospitals' Cancer Support Group, and founder of Sahayika, an NGO that has funded cancer treatment for over 1,500 needy children. Coming from her, that sounds entirely plausible.

With two surgeries for breast cancer in 1998 and 2004 behind her, Neerja is a double survivor as her daughter puts it. Despite her own health problem, Neerja would unfailingly call her daughter at 2.30 every morning to wake her up to study for the Board examinations. She even counselled another patient just after she had recovered from anaesthesia, post surgery.

Offering a word of advice to patients and their families, she says, “There are two ways of looking at cancer — positive and negativeMy way of looking at cancer was, ‘Ok, God you have given me the problem; it's your problem to give me the solution. The point is, you might be knocked down once, twice, thrice but you have the capacity with faith in Him to get right back on track. I want to tell people who are suffering from cancer that treatment is just a temporary detour.”

It is precisely this positive attitude and fighting spirit that fetched Neerja the Positive Health Heroes Award instituted by Dr. Batra's Positive Health Clinic.

She attributes this spirit largely to her parents, their faith in God and spirituality. “I once fell off a horse and my father said, ‘Get on, right now'. I was hurting but he knew that if I didn't get on right away I would later have to fight fear. So I have always been the type to bounce back after a setback.”

Early treatment

Underscoring the need to seek treatment early and follow the guidelines to a T, she says it is the responsibility of every NGO and hospital working in the area of cancer to convey the message that cancer is curable if detected early.

“In the days of our grandparents, diagnostics and treatment were not as advanced and medicines to manage the side effects did not exist. The diagnosis of cancer was like a death sentence. We have come a long way, since.”

Stressing the need for positive communication, she says, “With the right attitude cancer and its treatment are no big deal. Unfortunately, you hear such horrendous stories about chemotherapy, which actually, is not that bad at all. There are so many people who have survived cancer and not had a rough deal. There are pain killers to control the pain and the nausea can be handled. Immediately after chemotherapy, my hair looked like that of a British judge. I went to Tirupati and tonsured it a couple of times. People don't really die of cancer, but many die of fear.”

A hard-nosed, practical approach, is really what Neerja recommends to all those who seek her counsel. “If you're down and out and the going is tough, just accept what has happened, do what needs to be done, and move on, instead of getting depressed.”

The best doctors

Generous in her praise of Indian doctors, she says the best surgeons and the best oncologists are available in the country. Cousins connected her to doctors abroad while she underwent treatment in Mumbai and those doctors agreed that whatever was being done in India was exactly what they would have done.

And important features in her prescription for survival are laughter and fun things to look forward to, besides the practice of Reiki. After her first surgery, she saw a record number of 56 movies. “I couldn't stand it if anyone switched on the TV but I loved to go to the theatre and catch all the latest flicks. Reiki was a big support because I knew things were happening for me,” she says.

She was blessed because of an extremely supportive family. “My parents (my father would just put his hand on my head and say a mantra before I left the house either for a chemo session, radiation or surgery), my in laws and sister and sisters-in-law offered solid support, emotionally and mentally. That's why I started the Apollo support group with women because I had a group of women in my family who were my source of strength. In the cancer support group we are all survivors. The ace up our sleeve is that we've gone through the same things that other patients go through. That creates immediate rapport.”

Neerja is available 24x7 to cancer patients needing emotional support. “Having an objective outsider is a relief.” Neerja looks back on her life without regret. “Everything that happened — whether it was the miscarriages, the still births, the delivery of my premature twins, conquering cancer, graduating in Social Work or getting a B. Ed — was meant to prepare me for my vocation as a counsellor to cancer patients.”