Cricketer Yuvraj Singh is best known for his facility with the willow. But, the southpaw, a cancer survivor, was at his ease taking centre stage at an international conference on cervical cancer.
Yuvraj Singh is at the Global Forum on Cervical Cancer Prevention event at Kuala Lumpur, just ahead of Women Deliver 2013. Dressed nattily in a dark-blue suit, hair gelled stylishly, looking fit, a picture of confidence, he’s telling the audience in the packed auditorium: “Cancer cannot kill you if you have the faith.”
Chatting with The Hindu, Yuvraj speaks of his journey in the last one and a half years — a period that has given him his highest and lowest moments in life.
It was during the 2011 World Cup match against the West Indies in Chennai that Yuvraj paused in the middle of the game, crouching in pain. Clearly all was not well with the champ, but one merely put it down to the touch of a harsh Chennai sun. The crowd thought he was dehydrated. “I thought I was dehydrated. But it was something else,” he recollects.
Increasingly, he had problems breathing, after India finally reclaimed the World Cup, he decided to get himself a medical check-up. The first batch of results did not give him the right picture, but Yuvraj, his family and the country were shaken to learn he had been diagnosed with ‘extragonadal seminoma’, a pretty rare kind of cancer that had squatted between his lungs.
"Thankfully, it was detected early. That was most important," he says. Of course, it could have been still earlier, but he ignored symptoms.
Early detection is his mantra. At YouWeCan, the trust he started once he was well, the aim is push people to test themselves and facilitate detection. A new project is all set to take off to conduct detection drives in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore in partnership with the Indian Cancer Society. Already, in association with Apollo Hospitals, the trust, inspired by the Livestrong Foundation, has set itself an agenda of screening one lakh people. Of this, 20,000 people have already been screened, and 687 people tested positive for different types of cancers, his manager Nishant steps in to inform us. Over 600, the doctors apparently said, had come "just in time".
People constantly are ignoring warning symptoms in India, Yuvraj keeps stressing. “We need to screen our people. And people should not ignore their symptoms. Any disease can hit any one any time.” A lesson learnt the hard way. He does believe that his own cancer could have been detected earlier than it was, but he chose to look away; ignore the pain like the sportsman he was. Besides, the most important event in his life was unfolding just then, and he scarcely had time for anything else.
“I could have done it earlier. But that would have meant that I missed the World Cup. I would have played the World Cup even if my dad had died,” he says candidly. “At that time winning the World Cup was the most important thing in my life.”
Priorities have since changed though. With the high of a much-awaited win, along with the coveted Player of the Tournament achievement behind him, the cancer diagnosis could not have come at a worse time. “That was like crashing. It was really tough, for me, my mother, my family. But there was a lot of love from my country, and support from my mother and friends.” It was inevitable, therefore, that when he survived the cancer, and beat it down, he became the face of cancer prevention and detection in India.
“Initially, I was not comfortable talking about it. You do ask the question ‘why me’. But then you realise that cancer can happen to anyone, and once I came to terms with my condition, I decided to talk about it. You know, the more you talk about it, the more comfortable you become."
That was when he decided to use his story to nudge people in the right direction. “There are lots of diseases we don't talk about, because of the stigma. In the rural areas, people still don't know how to deal with cancer. When someone in the family has cancer, it is still tough to marry the girl or boy off, because of the stigma,” Yuvraj says. In certain areas people won't talk about cervical cancer. “Because it's got to do with a woman's sexuality, they are not comfortable discussing it,” he adds. Not surprisingly, these were issues that experts at the Global Forum had been discussing during the day.
Personally, Yuvraj says, he has made some modifications to his lifestyle since the treatment. “I try to eat a lot of organic food, and eat at home. My exercise routine is not so vigorous as in the past, the body is yet to recover. You have to take a lot of care of yourself after chemotherapy.” Simple pleasures are his now, as they never were: "I'm happy to be eating normally and not throwing up all the time. Eating and breathing freely, that is good."
Yuvraj is planning to spend more time and efforts with his trust, spreading awareness. And yes, he believes there are a few more years of cricket left in him. “Cricket is what I love doing. I play it with a lot of pride, love and passion. I don't feel differently just because someone comes along and tries to pollute it. I know how proud I've been playing for my country. It's what I love doing.”
And then he hoists one across, as he did six times off Stuart Broad in 2007 at the Durban World Twenty20 Super Eight: "But yes, now I know that life is important also."