For a decade, I had abused my body: Manisha Koirala on how cancer changed her life

Manisha Koirala tells the world how cancer helped her survive and thrive, in her new book

January 07, 2019 01:27 pm | Updated 05:59 pm IST

Manisha Koirala

Manisha Koirala

“I had kept notes during my cancer treatment, but I wasn’t sure what my outcome was going to be,” says Manisha Koirala, in a gentle voice, over a phone conversation from Kathmandu. “A part of me wasn’t sure if I would make it into a book. If it was going to be morbid, I wouldn’t want to tell it.” But she has told it, not depressingly, but honestly, in Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life .

In the book, she speaks of the life she led, beyond the glamour of Saudagar , Bombay , 1942: A Love Story , Dil Se . An alcohol addiction, IVF, failed romantic relationships, even the fear of abandonment. “For a decade, I had abused my body,” she says candidly. And in another place: “My state of mind was toxic, my approach to life complacent and my attitude ungrateful.” The realisation of all this came later though.

‘Life was so fragile’

Back in 2012, she didn’t know whether she would live or die. Diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, Manisha went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the US, where she would spend the next painful year. It began with the trauma of uncertainty, an 11-hour surgery, and extended into 18 sessions of chemotherapy over a six-month period. “…the cancer had spread like a bowl of Rice Krispies all over the organs,” she says in the book.

Amidst the feeling of “hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness,” in mind, body, and spirit, she talks of how family grouped around her, forming her strongest support system. She names all the people who stood by her, detailing the little things they did — things as small as putting a shawl over her shoulders. As she recovers, the positivity and hope shine through the dark moments. The book is roughly divided into three: the illness and fight for survival, her years in Bollywood, and insights into her own past behaviour and a rough guide to living differently in the future.

‘I would create my own sunshine’

Manisha says she’s in a good space today, content to spend time by herself, often enjoying solo travel. Before cancer, “I was not able to do that. I constantly needed company, distractions. Of course, we need people: family, a few friends, sometimes unknown people strengthen me.” As for the party-friends back in Mumbai, “80% of them fell away,” she says. She doesn’t seem to harbour any ill-will though: “Today, my relations and friendships are more rooted and solid. Maturity and a life-changing experience lets a lot of fluff fall off.”

Through the book, there are allusions to Nature: the mountains in Nepal, walking in the park in New York, watching a butterfly. “I feel I get a lot of energy from Nature when I’m by myself; I am recharged. During the shooting of Dear Maya in Shimla, I hired a guide, and we would go for treks in the jungle. This year I went to Austria — to Vivamayr, a health retreat. I’d love sitting by the lake, reading a book. I love watching the sunrise and sunset, and the sky, the birds.” She says even the most crowded cities have parks and spaces that take us to Nature, but we’re so busy, we don’t notice them. She began to, only after cancer.

She’s more spontaneous now, and doesn’t put her body under unnecessary stress. “If I am exhausted, I will pamper myself, take an extra nap, eat well, take a spa treatment.” She loves food, so she’ll indulge once in a while, though her system can’t take anything very spicy or oily. “I eat fish and eggs twice or thrice a week, but my body and mind have rejected alcohol.”

‘A new chapter in my life’

Healed has both the raw truth of a journal, the sort you write when you know no one’s reading; and the wisdom of experience, the kind you put out when you know people are listening, and that they will hear your voice. “We are here to learn from one another’s mistakes,” she says.

She says she needs to use that voice for bigger things, but she’s not sure what just yet. “I have dabbled with the idea of a foundation, but I’m a little scared of how much I can run it. I am not too sure of my management skills. Some donation, charity, is what I can do at present. I know that’s not enough at all. Someone like me can be useful in a big way. I will eventually end up doing something like that. But not in the immediate future.”

This year, she’s training to trek to the Mt Everest base camp. “We should value what we have and not take it for granted. I am that person today.” Also, she’d like to travel the world to learn about various modalities on health and wellness. But, she doesn’t plan long-term. “I have a vague idea, keeping in mind the things I like to do. I am open to life. When you have such a close encounter with death, you know better.”

Emotional nutrition

Rachna Chhachhi, a certified cancer nutrition coach and nutritional therapist in Mumbai, helped Manisha write the book, in the initial stages. She speaks about why our internal environments are as important as the external.

Cancer today is going to be as common as high cholesterol and the focus is not only on how to prevent it but also on how to get through it alive and decrease chances of recurrence while increasing our quality of life and longevity.

People with a higher emotional nutrition quotient and emotional strength are able to not only overcome even the deadliest of cancers but also snatch back their quality of life, just like Manisha Koirala did. She is an amazing inspirational example of bravery and determination.

Being emotionally strong means nurturing ourselves via emotional nutrition. A lot of people neglect not just their diet but also themselves.

Within the scope of diet, foods that emotionally balance us are good fats present in nuts, seeds, organic egg yellows, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, fish oil (proven by clinical studies of Queen Mary University of London; University of Guelph). However, this is just 40% of our balance.

We need to emotionally nourish ourselves by putting ourselves first, spending time with ourselves, liking our own company.

A daily practice of moderate exercise, cooling pranayamas and meditation cleanses our mind and thoughts so that the gratitude we feel deep inside ourselves can be expressed better. We are so caught up in our hurried lives that we forget to enjoy the unhurried aspects of being kind to people around us and appreciating them.

The three components of emotional nutrition are: foods (as given above), self-nurturing, and moderate exercise with yoga and meditation.

These have clinically shown repair of telomeres, which are at the ends of our DNA. Shorter telomere lengths increase cancer risk.

In cancer patients who did meditation for just 12 weeks and reduced their stress levels, an increase in telomere length was seen.

Manisha Koirala will be in conversation with Dr Sheela Nambiar at The Hindu Lit for Life at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, Chennai on January 12.

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