Early this month, at the Apéritif à la Francaise, a wine-tasting event in New Delhi, Piya Bajwa, regional director of the Indo-French Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IFCCI), was the life and soul of the soiree. Next morning, around the same time when those who attended the do were reading their morning papers, she was in a hospital, undergoing her fourth round of chemotherapy.
In March 2007, doctors had told Bajwa she had breast cancer. It took the feisty 35-year-old just five minutes to accept the news. It took much longer for her shocked family. “It was not that I was numb with the news or anything. I just took it calmly as a physical discomfort that had to be treated,” says Bajwa.
Once the diagnosis was in, Bajwa didn’t waste time and did a round of hospitals before fixing on the doctor she was most comfortable with. She finally settled for Amit Bhargava and Vedant Kabra, doctors at Max Hospital in New Delhi. She would need immediate surgery followed by six cycles of chemotherapy, they told her.
Bajwa took a week to organize things at office, so that her treatment schedules would least affect her work, before checking in for the surgery. In between, she even squeezed in an official trip to Mumbai, escorting a visiting delegation.
As the regional director of the Indo-French Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Bajwa has to travel regularly all over India, and her workday stretches to more than nine hours. But, in the last three months, she has not reduced her workload one whit.
She continues to traipse around the country. Neither has she missed any of the parties she has been invited to—in her official capacity, she gets called often. “I hate lying in bed. I have not allowed cancer to change my routine,” says the effervescent Bajwa.
While Bajwa’s is an extraordinary example of positive thinking, it is not a unique case. Dr Bhargava says that most of his patients these days lead active work lives. Early detection, drugs that reduce the side effects of chemotherapy, and new methods such as targeted therapies and gadgets such as chemoports have all contributed to a more productive life during treatment.
“The emphasis these days is to lead as busy and normal a life as possible,” says Harsh Dua, oncologist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. In many forms of cancer such as chronic myeloid leukaemia, low grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer and certain forms of brain tumour, patients can lead productive lives. There are some short infusions or day-care protocols that can be done on weekends. Of course, there are some cases where the cure involves long hospitalization.
Research and progress in medical science have led to a better understanding of how to manage cancer so that there is minimum pain during treatment. “Just because you have been diagnosed with cancer is no reason to hold your head and start crying,” says Bajwa, for whom laughter is a constant companion. She has even turned her hair loss —and she had gorgeous long tresses—into a positive statement. She refuses to wear a wig and jokes that she looks like Persis Khambatta. “Besides, I have so much fun experimenting with scarves,” she says.
Even if identified at a fairly late stage, medical science has advanced so much that most people can weed out the disease without sacrificing their careers or putting their work, hobbies or family life on hold. But, ultimately, it all hinges on willpower and the mind.
Subha Barry was 35, too, when she was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1997. Unlike Bajwa, who had no discernible symptoms and spotted the lump herself, Barry, the global head of diversity and inclusion, Merrill Lynch, in New York, struggled through six months of every imaginable minor ailment such as cold and influenza before her problem was diagnosed. “I did not have time to go to the doctor because I was inundated with work and home demands,” she says .
The branch manager for the company at that time, Barry had just got the biggest client of her career. Around the same time, she also lost her steady long-term childcare giver, who looked after her two children, who were nine and two at the time.
Given the pressures on both home and work fronts, Barry self-medicated and ended up in hospital in January 1997 with a severe platelet problem. “My cancer had lodged in my spleen and my spleen, in turn, was misbehaving, chewing up all my healthy platelets as fast as my bone marrow was producing them,” she says.
Barry had her spleen removed immediately and commenced chemotherapy within a week at the University of Pennsylvania. Between April and November 1997, she had six cycles of four chemotherapy drugs given every other week. In 2000, she underwent seven cycles of chemotherapy, followed by three cycles in 2002. She managed to work through all these.
“Usually, I scheduled my chemos on a Thursday evening, took Friday off, recovered at home on Saturday and Sunday and returned to work on Monday. My company had set up a complete home office and I was able to catch up on work from home,” she says.
The only time Barry, whose cancer was fairly advanced, took time off was when she had to undergo a stem cell transplant in June 2002. She was in hospital for a month and spent two months recovering at home before returning to work. Barry suffered from hair loss, fatigue, mouth sores and other nasty side effects. But she simply barrelled through it all, refusing to acknowledge any weakness.
Both Bajwa and Barry acknowledge how the support from office helped. Barry’s case was pretty complicated as hers was a Stage 3B cancer and she was an insulin-dependent diabetic as well. However, her office would not let her step down from her job. Instead, her immediate manager would offer to stand in for her on her chemotherapy days. “There was incredible outpouring of support from all around,” says Barry.
In Bajwa’s case, too, her colleagues rallied around. Her boss, Yves D. Monie, chairman of BNP Paribas, who heads IFCCI’s northern region council, asked Bajwa to take off from work for as long as she wanted. But Bajwa was adamant. “My work gives me a kick in life,” she says.
Any side therapies that helped them cope? In Bajwa’s case, none. Except breathing exercises which, incidentally, she had started much before she knew she had cancer. Barry took up yoga, became vegetarian, ate lots of yoghurt and learnt Art of Living meditation.
Talk to both women and the thing that strikes one about them is that their experience with cancer has given them wisdom far beyond their years. Sample this: “Become an observer in your own life and do not let the experience sear your soul. Learn to lean on people, because you then give others permission to lean on you. Smile and laugh as often as you can. Live with gratitude for everything you have,” says Barry.
As for Bajwa, who still has two more cycles of chemotherapy to go before she conquers cancer, she repeats words that she has heard her mother say often. “This, too, will pass.”
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