Posted by Tejaswini Kadam, Jalandhar, Punjab
“Ma’am you’re a very brave lady.”
So, the diagnosis isn’t good. My first thought as soon as I entered the room and the doctor said these words, all too soon. He proceeded to explain how many people are living happy and healthy lives years after they have been diagnosed.
“What is my diagnosis doctor?”
“Suspected Pancreatic Cancer, stage 4.”
Strangely, it didn’t shake me as much as it would others. My conviction? The word “suspected”. So there’s hope still and things can be better. Faith can move mountains, I told myself. This too shall pass.
All this happened within a week of my shifting base from Pune to Jalandhar, since my man in the Olive Greens was posted here. With our 19 year old son Vedant off to find his wings in IHM Goa, I was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful life with hubby dearest. Destiny had plans!
What started off as a stabbing pain in the upper left side of the abdomen changed the course of our lives. I was referred to the Army Hospital Research and Referral, Delhi (AHR&R) for my PET scan and further tests and treatment. What was meant to be a short stay of four days of tests in Delhi before we got back home to Jalandhar turned out to be a hospital admission for seven weeks, with severe jaundice, multiple biopsies that were inconclusive, failed attempts to insert a biliary stent to regulate the bile flow and a life I had not envisaged in my wildest dreams. With a catheter sticking out of my stomach attached to a bile bag outside, continuous administering of antibiotics and medicines through an Intravenous (IV). I was bed ridden.
Helpless but the spirit still intact and the smile hadn’t left my face.
I was going through one or the other procedure almost every three days and it was extremely exhausting and painful. I decided to remain calm and see myself through this. Especially, after I saw my husband shedding silent helpless tears in the hospital corridor unable to do anything to help me. I had to be strong for him. And for Vedant who still wasn’t told about my suspected diagnosis and hospitalisation. But the day came when the young man was told that he wouldn’t be home in Jalandhar but in hospital in Delhi with me for his winter break.
A shocked broken boy stood looking at me when he first saw me on the hospital bed, both of us trying to control the tears. My son has never seen me unwell ever. Always by his side, encouraging him enthusiastically in his studies and skating endeavour. Vedant is a National Gold medalist in Freestyle skating and has represented India in the world championships in the Netherlands and in Barcelona. So naturally his routine was hectic and I had to be on my toes taking care of all his needs. I gladly gave up my job of two decades to be with him and be his anchor. So to see his Mama lying so helplessly, having lost a lot of weight and not sure what was ailing her made him sad and confused. But only momentarily. The lad walked up to me, gave me a long hug and said “You’ll be fine Mama, don’t worry.”
My healing probably started at that moment even before a confirmed diagnosis!
Six biopsies later, the doctors decided to go in for a diagnostic laparoscopy as the last resort to find out what was happening. While the PET scan showed activity in my pancreas, spleen and lungs, the biopsies were unable to point out the exact nature of the tumours. After seven weeks in the hospital two good things came about. My PTBD procedure to insert the biliary stent was successful which meant I was finally rid of the wires and bag sticking out of my stomach. And the doctors decided to let me go home for a couple of weeks after my laparoscopy.
In time to celebrate my fiftieth birthday!!
I was elated. We had planned my milestone birthday to be different. It certainly was but not the way we had wanted it. A beautiful quiet evening with Vedant and Paddy at home in Jalandhar was perhaps the best birthday I could ever have, given the circumstances! That was also the day Paddy got a call from the hospital giving him the results of the laproscopy. I was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphatic Cancer (NHL) and not Pancreatic Cancer as was earlier believed.
What a huge relief that was. The prognosis for NHL was good and I was going to be cured of the cancer with Chemotherapy. I couldn’t have asked for a better fiftieth birthday gift. He didn’t want to ruin my birthday so I was told about it the following day. A huge sigh of relief and gratitude to the One above. We headed back to Delhi for my treatment. More tests, followed by a bone marrow biopsy confirmed that my Cancer had spared the bones!! I was all set to begin with the treatment.
I had my first Chemotherapy session on the 20th of February. Very apprehensive about what to expect, we went with a positive and happy mind. The first dose was a reduced one and only part of the medicines were administered owing to my very poor health. I had lost a total of ten kilos over the last two months. We often read up a lot of stuff online about whatever ails us. A mistake, I made too. Not all that is written there is necessarily true or what you could go through too. Our bodies react differently to medication and drugs. It got me worked up. So after my first Chemotherapy, I realised it wasn’t as scary or intimidating as I had read about it and that prepared me well for the next few months.
I was home and holding up well after the first session. I was to undergo six Chemotherapy sessions in all, each three weeks apart. In my second session, I was administered the full dose of the Chemo medicine. And then the troubles began. While I couldn’t wish away the discomfort and pain I was going through, I had decided to have faith in myself and believe that all this is going to nurse me back to good health again. The necessary evil? The pain is real. You have no choice but to bear it. Cry if you must, it relieves the pent up anger, agony and pain.
I immersed myself in reading, photography, cooking and music to keep my mind away from the pain. It helped. I was also following and practicing alternative healing therapies for my mind and body. A good friend had introduced me to Rene Mey’s healing along with Sujok colour, crystal and magnet therapies.
Every morning, my resolve to see myself through this only grew stronger. It’s very simple really. You manifest what you want and keep believing in it every day. “Stay happy” I told myself. The bones hurt, there were sores in my mouth and I couldn’t eat, I had no appetite and the smell of food made me nauseous. The challenge here is that the doctors tell you to keep having small amounts of nutritious food constantly to build and maintain your immunity. But food is the last thing on my mind as I combat my churning stomach and a constantly parched throat. There were times I woke up in cold sweat even with freezing temperatures outside. I got hungry at odd hours at night but brought up all the food that I took in. I had aversion to certain smells and tastes. Water tasted like metal! Paddy patiently held the fort for me. My biggest strength and solace all through my ordeal.
Days, weeks went by and it was time to go for my third Chemotherapy session. And the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Another C to combat. Would we be able to travel to Delhi for my Chemotherapy? Will the hospital treat me now? For the first time since my diagnosis, I was nervous.
Total chaos reigned as we tried to find out what were the necessary precautions to be taken and what additional formalities had to be completed for our travel. We had less time on our hands and mandatory paperwork to be done before we could start for Delhi. Luckily Paddy’s being in the defence services helped. We didn’t need to run around to get inter-state passes to travel from Jalandhar to Delhi and back. Paddy travelled in his uniform each time and that sorted out our major travel concerns. But little did we realise that this was just the beginning of our woes. When we reached our guest rooms, booked and confirmed earlier, we were asked to produce a COVID-19 clearance certificate for both of us failing which we would have to take the test there in Delhi. We had no time since my Chemotherapy session was scheduled for the next morning at eight. The pandemic had taken huge proportions and the guest room management refused to let us stay there! After calling up several course mates Paddy was able to get us accommodation in another guest room.
This entire episode due to the pandemic played havoc with my mind. For once, I was scared. We barely slept that night. With a prayer on our lips and a resolve to see this through we left for the hospital the next morning. The entire setup had changed there. An OPD had been set up in what once used to be the cafeteria of the guest rooms meant for the caretakers of patients. We had to park our vehicles outside and queue up for the appointment which was already confirmed. I’ve never felt so unsettled in my life as I did at that moment. The doctors came, checked our temperatures, sanitized our hands and bags and let us in. Another rude jolt when I was told that Paddy won’t be allowed to go to the Chemotherapy ward with me. I was beginning to panic. My man in shining armour positioned himself in such a way outside the ward that I could see him all along. He sat there in the sun for the entire seven hours till my session was done. “I must’ve done something good to deserve him” my thoughts as I left the hospital after my Chemo. This exhausted me more than the trauma caused by the Chemotherapy.
The third and fourth sessions happened amid the pandemic. Extremely unnerving and unsettling. The long commute from Jalandhar to Delhi was truly exhausting. But we managed. The doctors, nurses and other staff were doing all they could to keep some sense of normalcy by chatting and laughing to lighten up the air. What God sends they were at a time when everything looked daunting and uncertain.
The side effects of the Chemo continued with each session and got worse at times. I lost my hair after the third Chemotherapy. I was prepared for it, almost waiting for it to happen. It was liberating to say the least! Mom-in-law was in tears to see my bald pate but it couldn’t be helped. We all tried to make light of the situation and the head bereft of tresses soon became a family favourite!!
It was during the fifth Chemo that I was told to go to the Command hospital, Chandimandir for my Chemo since the AHR&R Delhi had been hit by the pandemic and in the Onco ward at that! The COVID scare had reached home after all. More than halfway through my Chemotherapy, I wasn’t really prepared for this change in course. But we had to go. Calls made, guest room booked and we started for the hospital.
The bare roads, shut down toll plazas and shops wearing deserted looks greeted us along the way. The lockdown had taken its toll. The road looked daunting even in broad daylight. Police check posts at every few kilometres checking on the odd traveller like us. We drove in silence and reached the hospital.
To our shock we were told that I would have to take the COVID-19 test first. Better safe than sorry true, but with my compromised immunity I wasn’t able to get myself to accept what was happening. I was admitted in the isolation ward as soon as we reached the hospital and stayed there till my COVID-19 test reports were out. A complete nightmare that shook me. Reports expected that evening. Negative. Relief. Petrified I hadn’t moved from my bed for the entire duration I was in the isolation ward.
The enormity of what a pandemic is, hit hard. Really hard. I was shifted to the officer’s family ward. The privacy of the cool air conditioned room gave me the time and space to sort out my confused mind. The COVID-19 scare had taken over. More was in store, when I was told the next morning that my haemoglobin had dropped and I could not be administered the Chemotherapy. A fallout or side effect of the Chemotherapy. I needed an immediate blood transfusion.
Unexpected, but wasn’t all this, the Cancer, the Chemo, the COVID-19, everything was unexpected but real and happening. “Every hand that touches me is a healing hand and new energy and ideas are circulating through my body” I kept saying this to myself to calm my frayed nerves. Transfusion done. I was administered the fifth Chemo the following day.
Alone in my room on that hospital bed, a million thoughts rushed through my mind. Paddy wasn’t allowed in the officers ward, entry restricted due to COVID-19. This too shall pass I consoled myself.
By now my body seemed to be giving up on me. The veins had started drying up making it difficult for the nurses to find a vein for the IV, since I did not have a port for the Chemotherapy to be administered. I ended up with thrombosed veins which was another level of pain altogether. It leaves scars on your mind and body. And these scars take time to heal. Don’t hide or fear your scars, they’re a reminder of how beautifully you’ve endured!
The smile hadn’t left my face but my eyes looked sad and lonely. My eyelashes!!! They were gone as were the eyebrows. This hurt. Not because of the lack of hair, because my smile didn’t reach my eyes and that hit hard. In my heart, I was happy but my eyes told a different tale. The aches, pains, nausea, dehydration and so much more had made everyone miserable. You see, Cancer affects the entire family not just the patient. I cannot stress the importance of having a great family and support system in place through these difficult times. Often times, just having someone around is a huge comfort.
My sixth and final Chemo happened in the AHR&R in Delhi. Thank God for small mercies. No roadblocks this time around. It went well, uneventful. Done and dusted. Relieved we headed back home to Jalandhar. I went in for my review three weeks later.
The hanging sword again, I had to clear the COVID-19 test before I could go in for my PET scan. It is uncharacteristically alarming that a person who has compromised immunity is being made to go through the COVID-19 test multiple times! Yes, yes I have my mask on, my sanitizer in my pocket, cautious about not touching anything or anyone, blah, blah, blah. But that fear still lurks. As unnerving, it was I went through it for the second time and got done with it.
My PET scan was scheduled for the next morning. And then the nail biting wait for two days before the reports came in! On the 11th of July 2020, exactly seven months to this date, I was given a “Complete Remission” report. A million thoughts and people came to mind and I said a small prayer of gratitude. I was free of the Cancer after all. We had won!
But the biliary stent was still an unresolved issue. My dropping hemoglobin levels didn’t permit the doctors to conduct the procedure the next day, as was planned. We headed back home. Another blood transfusion, multiple injections to boost the HB count and a month later I was back in Delhi for my ERCP procedure.
The COVID-19 test for a third time. It wasn’t as daunting anymore. I guess it is a matter of conditioning our minds and believing that all is well! I went through the ERCP procedure and the stent was successfully removed. As I regained consciousness and opened my eyes to the familiar white ceiling, I couldn’t but smile at life’s irony. My tryst with the big C that began in this very operation theatre, on this bed, came to its logical and happy end exactly eight months on. Blessed. Grateful for all the times, good and bad.
I’m back home now. Getting stronger and better by the day. Soon, I’ll be back to where I left off, living my unfulfilled dreams, enjoying the sunsets and singing my favourite song…
Oh oh oh
Slip and slide away I go
Oh slip and slide away I go into a dream
Now they say that dreams are just for fools
Well I betcha fools made up those rules
So never mind what they say
Just slip and slide away
Cos it’s okay!!
Cover Image: Lockdown Voices
Story Images: Author
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