There is life and joy after cancer, survivors tell

When ward councillor Sujatha (name changed) heard a mammogram screening to detect breast cancer was organized in her area, she prompted the women in her locality to attend the screening. But she never made it to the test, “This cannot happen to me,” she believed- a though that most breast cancer survivors have entertained atleast once.

A few months later Sujatha’s underarms were swollen and the lump she dismissed as a heat boil turned out to be cancerous. The world may see Sujatha and her counterparts enrolled at the Dr.K.Shanta Breast Care Foundation (SBCF) as patients and victims of a deadly disease, but these women perceive themselves as survivors. Every October when the world commemorates Breast Cancer Awareness month these women meet to share progress and discuss family support, diet and exercises, with fun and games incorporated in the agenda.

Drawing confidence

“Every time I drop into the hospital or meet one of them (breast cancer survivors), I grow more confident and cheerful,” says Bhavani, a 46 year old from Pettavathalai, the live wire of the group. “I spoke to a survivor from Tuticorin who had her operation 15 years ago and she is hale and hearty.”

Fear, anxiety, embarrassment are all familiar emotions for these woman who have lost a breast to cancer, but are glad they managed to live through the ordeal. Some hail from the city, some are from rural parts, some are well –informed, other have a fundamental knowledge though they may refer to scan as photo and ‘radiation as ‘current’.

Not all women are as fearless as Bhavani. Usha Rani admits, “I am still afraid. Very much afraid. I lost both my parents to cancer and I wonder if the fear will ever go away.”

It is from women like Pappathi, 47, who had her breast removal surgery seven years ago that Usha Rani and others draw inspiration. “My relatives though I would live for three years at the most. It’s been seven years and I’m talking to you now,” she smiles. “My jobs entails picking jasmines in the fields. It is an excellent exercise.”

Losing hair and more

It is their baldness that is the first giveaway of the disease, feels Saroja, 35, Lalapettai, undergoing chemotherapy. Breast cancer is a disease that hits at the very femininity of woman, feel survivors, as women stand not only to lose their breast but also their hair. “Many women are upset as they believe that hair loss during chemotherapy is permanent. It is a temporary phenomenon after which hair will grow back,” says Dr.Govindaraj, founder of the foundation named after his mother. Today saving the breast by avoiding mastectomy, breast reconstructive surgeries and silicon implants are options for women who are conscious of their bodies.

Trash denial mode

These women are clearly harbingers of a clear message. “Today no woman should shy away from the fact that once she crosses 40, she is vulnerable to breast cancer,” says Panjavarnam from Thiruvarur district. “ Finding it out at the earliest can save your life.”

The survivors are keen that women do not repeat the mistake they did-ignoring a lump or swelling in the breasts, says Selvi, one of the youngest in the group. “I discovered the lump while bathing but I ignored it as it was neither painful nor made me uncomfortable,” she narrates. However after six months, she reported to a physician who prescribed a screening to confirm cancer. “We delayed the test by a month. It was a difficult phase for us- the phase when we were unsure and wondering whether this could be cancer or not,” says Selvi’s husband “It is a period when you would like to know but want to put off knowing at the same time,”.

A voice of reason at the time of emotional turbulence helped them look forward and accept the diagnosis, the share.

“I owe everything to my husband,” is Selvi’s only comment as other women nod, stressing the need for family support during treatment and after and speaking about a son, daughter-in-law or spouse who stood by them.

“You need your loved ones as it is a time when your relatives will descend upon you with a mournful face. They will confuse you by talking about various treatments, telling you that your choice is wrong,” says Ramani . “There were people who analysed my wife’s chances of survival and predicted the day and hour when she would draw her last breath. It hurt,” says Selvi’s husband.

“Three months you’ll be ok and then we’ll see,” someone told me says Bhavani. “But I can do all m work today. Breast cancer is just like a fever or cold. It happened to me and I ‘ve got rid off it and I’m moving on.”

Women like Bhavani, full of joie de vivre are the true mascots of the breast cancer awareness campaign- for the undimmed hope, optimism and cheer that a lump in the breast cannot come in the way of life.