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What Shirly taught me about 'fighting' cancer

Although it's the accepted way to look at the disease, a yoga student and cancer survivor questioned it by asking why we must 'fight' when it takes away energy

Mental and physical balance
Mental and physical balance (Unsplash)

In this excerpt from her book Imagine If: Stories of Ordinary People With Extraordinary Grit, Rajvi H Mehta, yoga practitioner and teacher, who learnt yoga under Guru B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar Yoga, talks about meeting a woman at a yoga centre in Israel, and being intrigued by her strange poise and confidence. She later learns that the student, Shirly Ecker, is a cancer survivor. Through conversations with her, Mehta outlines the way some people deal with adversity, and how yoga can help in this process.

A year later, she was in Pune at the institute, so I asked her if I could interview her about how she had fought the disease. She laughed out loud. ‘You want me to talk about my fight against cancer. I don’t fight. Fighting and war take away energy. Why would I waste energy? I need the energy to live life and not fight. I don’t understand why people want to fight. I just look the disease in the eye and accept it and live with it.’

I was taken aback. ‘Fighting’ was such a common term used in relation to this disease—I had heard about foods that fight cancer, people that fight cancer. And here she had said, ‘Fighting takes away energy. I need the energy to live.’ How did nobody think of that before? That explained her approach and the calmness with which she had accepted her disease as another fact of life. There was so much to learn from this statement. We argue and fight with people with different views and ideologies, but what good is that? We only lose our energy. Why waste our energy on what we don’t like? Why not just ‘accept’? Even in our daily life, differences that arise between couples or families or members of the society, out of a simple mismatch of behaviours and habits, break them apart. If we just accept others as they are—with their thoughts, habits, behaviours and views—the world would be a much better place. And we would all be smiling because we don’t fight.

For her, it was a simple statement—a fact of life. Then she continued, ‘That’s why it is important for me that people understand. People who have cancer find it hard to think like that. It’s like a part of your body that you don’t like, but at some stage you have to accept it. In the same way, I understood that I must accept my cancer for what it is, and so I do not make war on it.’ Shirly’s words were profound. We fight against what we don’t like. We waste our energy doing that. The loss is ours. Why can’t we just accept this and rather use our energy to work around it and for something we like?

People give lectures on yoga, on philosophy, but here was a person living philosophically under what appeared to me as adverse conditions. She was living the yoga sutras, cancer or common cold which state, ‘maitri karuna mudita upekshanam, sukha duhkha punya apunya …’ Accept things that are not conducive to you and move on … She then formally introduced herself. ‘I am Shirly Ecker. As you can see, I am an albino and I have nystagmus—involuntary eye movement. And yes, also—I almost forgot—cancer. Well, actually, a few types of cancer. It started with Hodgkin’s but then there were others.’ I was stunned. I could not imagine the plight of anybody who had five relapses of cancer, with her first cancer at the age of twenty-two. At an age when people live to turn their myriad dreams into reality—dreams of a career, a family, seeing the world, living life to the fullest—how would it feel to be suddenly woken up by the reality of cancer?

I definitely wanted to know more about her and her story of where she got this strength and ability to look diseases like cancer in the eye and not fear it, fight it or feel depressed about it…. Shirly had had a normal childhood—as normal as it could be with both parents being Holocaust survivors. Her mother was saved from a concentration camp by a Polish family, while her father, a physics professor, had worked in the Israeli air force. Both her parents did yoga. One day, while doing her Sarvangasana, she felt something was not right in her throat. It was an odd feeling. So she approached a doctor. He examined her and told her that there was nothing wrong with her. She insisted that she felt something different when she did her Sarvangasana and her breathing was altered. Her doctor had a simple answer.

‘Then don’t do it.’ Moulding the body in that position seemed to him more abnormal than the complaint Shirly had come with. This was more than twenty-five years ago when the medical fraternity did not know about yoga, let alone appreciate its effect on human life. What could Shirly do? She continued her life, ignoring the doctor’s suggestion of stopping Sarvangasana.

Six months later, the ‘real’ symptoms were evident. She started losing weight and had night sweats. With these symptoms she went back to the doctor who could now diagnose her condition as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a tumour which needed to be treated with chemo and radiotherapy.

It was interesting that six months before the ‘known’ symptoms of cancer surfaced, Shirly had sensed the symptoms herself during her yoga practice.

The diagnosis did not worry Shirly much. She had known that something was not right six months earlier and at least now it had been diagnosed. The treatment started with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her physicist father was not too keen on radiotherapy, worried that the therapy itself could lead to cancer in the future. But the doctors were confident and they had no evidence which substantiated his fears. Generally, in case of cancer, patients are considered ‘cured’ if they remain in complete remission for at least five years. The definition of cure cancer or common cold differed between the doctor and the father. The doctor had his way and Shirly was given radiotherapy. She endured the related ups and downs with full support from her parents and two sisters, hoping that it was just an uncomfortable patch in her life that hindered her graduation in social work.

Unlike most people, Shirly wasn’t worried or even afraid of cancer. Why could she not befriend it instead? Little did she realise then that cancer would become her very good friend and keep coming back again and again.

Today, Shirly has spent more years of her life with cancer than without. She has had five relapses of different cancers in a span of thirty years—Hodgkin’s, Merkel cell or skin cancer and, most recently, breast cancer.

Anybody else in her place, including me, would have been shattered. But if you happen to meet Shirly, you would be made to believe that she was suffering from nothing more than a common cold. It comes and goes, and you don’t give it so much importance. You do what needs to be done but definitely don’t overreact. All this is easier said than done. We can give ‘profound’ advice to not worry or be bothered about the cancer since there are therapies and treatment. But not many would be able to handle these conditions with so much ease. Shirly said it all in one statement: ‘Cancer is a part of life; don’t make it bigger than life.’

It was so true. Whenever there is a problem, we get so absorbed in it that it puts our life on hold. Everything else that was important a day before becomes redundant. But Shirly taught me with her own example that life goes on, we accept whatever comes, without putting our life on hold. We continue doing whatever we possibly can. So often, overwhelmed by problems, we forget that they are just a part of life; we give them so much importance that they take away our life from us. The problem becomes the focus of everything. Shirly indeed had a real problem. She attended to it with whatever therapy was possible but did not get bogged down. How many of us have that ability to not get bogged down by our problem? During the very recent lockdown all over India, to help maintain socialdistancing and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, I was surprised at the major problems that most of the residents in my building faced. These young professionals put umpteen posts on our chat groups complaining about the time and effort that went into household chores.

Surprisingly, none of them commented on the pleasures of being home with the family, saving commute time or not having to worry about their kids in the crèche. Our mind has this tendency to focus on the problems alone. Consider our history lessons. We learnt about the three battles of Panipat, the two world wars and the events that led to them. We learn about these events because they changed the world. But I wonder why we also don’t learn in detail about all the good times in between. Why not learn about life during the times of peace and tranquillity?

Why don’t we give as much importance to what is positive around us? Maybe because we want to prevent becoming complacent when things are going well, we train ourselves to stay apprehensive so that we can develop the capacity to handle any eventuality. But what if we could be prepared for all eventualities and yet see the good things around us?

Shirly was teaching me a big lesson on how to accept problems, even if it is cancer, as a part of life and not make it bigger than life itself. Initially, I had felt that she was in denial, not accepting her situation and therefore not getting affected. Denial is unhealthy because at some point of time we will have to face the reality, and then it would appear graver and more difficult to accept. But in her case, it was very clear that she just saw thingsdifferently. Her focus was on the beauty of life—even when she was in the hospital.


Life is often equated with a journey. A journey where there are milestones to touch and goalposts to reach. A journey where there are responsibilities and desires to be fulfilled—desires for ourselves, of those around us and sometimes of society. How do we decide whether the journey has been successful? We consider it successful when we reach our destination and fulfil the purpose of the journey. For a musician travelling for a concert,the journey does not end on reaching the concert hall but after an enthralling performance. For a researcher travelling to share his research at a conference, the journey is successful if the paper is well accepted. The journey of a mountaineer on an expedition is successful on summiting the peak. But what if the journey does not lead to the desired outcome? What if the musician’s presentation is not appreciated, the researcher’s findings are criticised or the climber is unable to summit? Is the journey unsuccessful? After the initial disappointment, we console ourselves or are consoled by family, friends, teachers and peers that there is some learning in failure too. Failures are the stepping stones to success. Thus we start preparing for the next attempt and then the next attempt and then the next, and life moves on.

Imagine If: Stories of Ordinary People with Extraordinary Grit by Rajvi H Mehta, Westland Publications;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>299
Imagine If: Stories of Ordinary People with Extraordinary Grit by Rajvi H Mehta, Westland Publications; 299

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