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Cancer, clichés, and memories of the body

A cancer diagnosis can make you fall in love with your body, and listen to all it has to say

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

There’s some truth in all the clichés about cancer. I tell you this six months after my own diagnosis, now in a triumphant stage called NED (no evidence of disease). There is, as you know, no cure. Only NED or remission, which can last months or several years or a lifetime.

There’s some truth in clichés about everything that stops being just a fact and becomes a metaphor. Religion, caste, gender, country. Hipster, Dharavi, Salman Khan—they’re not just biology or a lifestyle or a place or a film star. They are loaded entities. This loadedness isn’t exactly interesting in cancer, it’s morbid. As a species, we are good at mystifying what we can’t control with a simple weapon like a pill, and much of cancer is varying degrees of mystification. So it is not just a disease in which cells inside your body start attacking their own terrain. It is doom, mortality, pity, a physical appearance, Rajesh Khanna in Anand (1971). Living with it or “beating it" is military—we are warriors, fighters, crusaders. The warrior metaphor isn’t used as commonly to describe people with, say, schizophrenia or progressive blindness.

We attract positivity gospels more than those with clinically managed mental illnesses. In the inner chambers of Chemo Nagar, we give in to positivity, and most of the time, it works wonders. I summoned all the positivity I had in myself and absorbed all I got from the people around me. I never thought I had the time or inclination for serious make-up, but I did unfailingly wear concealer, translucent mineral powder, kohl and various shades of red lipstick to each of my six cycles of chemotherapy. The ladies in chemo daycare who chose to wear nighties, would smile in shock or amusement. The men would just look. You need all that make-up if you have read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer page by page, and then headed to Chemo Nagar yourself. The net addles our brains with numbers. Sometimes I love the fact that more and more people in the world have cancer—it’s a kind of perverse joy. Sometimes I go back to the comfort of the cancer journey of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould proved that the median survival rate of your kind of cancer has nothing to do with your chances of being NED for 25 years.

Cancer can make humans do crazy good things. The best-selling author Kris Carr turned her cancer experience into a hugely successful nutrition and life-coaching business out of Woodstock, US. Her Facebook videos include gorgeously shot odes to veganism. Vijay Bhat, founder of Cancer Awakens, a Mumbai-based organization with a multipronged approach to engaging people who have had the disease, and co-author of the book My Cancer Is Me, adopted a pet crab after he was cured of his own cancer several years ago. His message was simple and literal: Own your cancer. There’s a robust community of life coaches and “cancer thrivers" working for him at Cancer Awakens.

I can sense a distinct loss of cynicism in me. So cancer changed the world as I knew it. The clichés came unavoidably alive. Sometimes they are insufferable, and sometimes hilarious, depending on how I feel that day. Relatives I haven’t heard from in years have called up and said, “You can fight it, don’t give up." An aunt once ended a short conversation by saying she was not surprised by my diagnosis, because, like her own daughter, who had had breast cancer, I did not have biological children. This is what I mean by mystification.

It’s best not to take the warrior compliment seriously. Once I got “that’s so brave" for dropping my child to the bus. Once for having a pedicure in my favourite salon. Sometimes people just don’t know what to say or how to react to the hairless chemo look by saying, “You’re so brave". Sometimes they probably genuinely mean it. But I have received much more than unsolicited psychotherapy in the past six months: the healing powers of being married to a man with a sense of humour and the ability to nurture without expectations, dubious information on miracle cures, insurance company spams by the minute, marketing calls from adult diaper companies, the realization that my six-year-old girl has more resilience than I would ever have imagined, and that girlfriends and sisters can see you through anything. And an abundance of complicated kindness, as one of my closest girlfriends say.

I now like kindness. We live hard lives, and chemotherapy makes it harder. Unlike many who choose to keep their cancer diagnosis a secret, I instinctively reached out and let my close friends rally around me, pamper me. You need an army to be the warrior the world considers you to be.

Thanks to the army, I am eating and feeling healthier than ever before. I used to scorn the hipster; now, I am one—organic, seasonal, no dairy, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no refined anything, only cold-pressed oils, only mill-fresh atta (wheat flour), home-grown wheatgrass, minimal plastic use. It’s a clean, in-remission, second life, joyous till it lasts. A close colleague who had a health crisis several years ago, and who is known to be a very wise man, has, however, warned, “Wait for three years, Amul Butter and beer will be back in your life."

The truth is, I am not a warrior, I am a listener. The transformative part of my cancer experience has been the conversations with my body—most of the time, the body spoke and I listened. I first heard the cancer diagnosis in an analgesic haze—one of the drugs that my veins were transporting into my body and which worked somewhat after a 9-hour-long surgery was Fentanyl. It is used for extreme pain, and the ICU days were probably surreal because of it. The doctors had opened up my stomach after an advanced frozen-section biopsy done to rule out malignancy proved I had early-stage ovarian malignancy. The body, with a stapled stitch running down the length of its midriff, struggled to keep awake in the days following the surgery. I sat up and walked soon, but the body seemed dead. Dead for the first time, because it wasn’t obeying the mind. The conversation began slowly when I realized it was not a fight—how can you fight your own body? There is no external virus there. Had it turned against me after 43 years of expecting too much out of it? Yes, it said. I fell in love with it.

Memories of the body’s struggles became a map for understanding crucial bits about myself: the tuloni biya, or the first ceremonial menstruation, during which my grandmother and her friends dressed me up like a bride and invited the whole neighbourhood to celebrate, the too bony teenage years, the awkward introduction to sex, the liberating 20s, the overweight years overlapping with the infertility years (during which a leading gynaecologist of Mumbai told me my uterus was weeping because I wasn’t getting pregnant), dark holes of pain due to endometriosis, being on diets, giving up on diets, then the radical hysterectomy as a treatment for cancer.

There are a thousand things to say about this map. The body reveals as much about a life as the mind does. The possibilities of knowing the world better, even with exasperating clichés, are endless.

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic. Write to her at

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