Here’s a real-life fighter who defied death in the battle against Cancer & won each time– thrice… and now lives to tell us about the struggle and the ultimate victory!!!
If he could defeat Cancer… so can you…
Even cancer is afraid of death… if it knows you are going to fight. In my 36 years of military service, I have had many encounters with death. For an aviator and soldier risk to life is an intrinsic part of duty. I always boldly faced challenges and never let the risks cloud my mind with fear of any kind. However, life often throws up challenges for which you are least prepared. I was diagnosed with cancer of Lymph Nodes in the summer of 2008 and subsequently had three rounds of treatment at various intervals. This was a very close encounter with ‘The Emperor of Maladies’ and the ordeal was more than what I had imagined. This was a totally different kind of battle in which the mere ‘Survivor’ itself becomes the ‘Winner’.
The inspiration to pen these experiences comes from ‘Lance Armstrong’ and his book ‘It’s not about the Bike.’ Lance, a US citizen, was a world cycling champion at the age of 25. He battled testicular cancer which had spread to his lungs and brain. Doctors predicted only a 3% chance of survival but he not only overpowered the killer disease but battled on to become world champion in a marathon of cycling (Tour de France) within two years of treatment, with sheer grit, determination and perseverance.
Cancer – a game changer
‘Life’ for me was all bed of roses, studded with landmarks of achievement. I had just wiz passed my golden jubilee birthday in December 2007. Five decades of good health with yoga, pranayam and games/long walks which were part of my daily routine. No paan, tobacco, smoking or alcohol coupled with vegetarian food habits. My regimented lifestyle was like ONIDA TV- ‘Neighbours Envy and Owners Pride’. I was commanding an artillery brigade in Delhi. The challenges of this assignment left me with no time to think of adversities.
It was the summer of 2008 when I observed my collar bones disappearing under some swelling at the base of the neck, with small nodes on both sides. No pain, no warning and no symptoms lead me to believe it to be body fat. A few days down the timeline, I met a friend of mine in Army Hospital (R&R). Considering it a minor problem, I went ahead with some tests suggested by him. They were all OK, so I jokingly told him that you have wasted my time.
Not convinced and probably sensing the impending storm, he took me to Oncology Dept. This was my first exposure to Oncology and its terminology. I underwent an FNAC test. Armed with test results and serious looks (which were rare) my friend told me that there is some problem. He took me to Col (now Brig Retd) AK Dhar, VSM, HOD, Onco-Medicine and told me that he will look after me hereafter. Dr Dhar – a very mature, competent and soft-spoken decent person, inspired instant confidence in me. He disclosed that there are early indications of low-grade ‘Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma’ (NHL). In simple terms, cancer of some lymph nodes. He said, “It’s curable at this stage.” and patiently explained the details. Understanding very little, I asked him in filmy style- “How much time do I have, doctor?” He smiled and said, “It’s curable, Sir! But the treatment is long and painful”. He asked me to digest the news and come the next day with my wife, for discussions/counselling.
As I walked out of his office, the world looked different. Driving back home, the echo of ‘I have cancer’ got louder and louder. All other problems of life like career, achievements, children’s education, parent’s health, wife’s shopping and boss’s mood, which were major concerns till an hour ago, now appeared too mundane and of little consequence. The new problem had dwarfed them all.
As I arrived home, I hurriedly went over the lunch, half listening to the mundane chores and then disclosed the traumatic news to my wife, in the privacy of our bedroom. A lady of steel and grit, she did not display her emotions. She listened and said, “If the doctor says he will cure it, why worry?” I know behind this simple statement was a storm brewing in her mind. The uneasy poise and her body language said all that which words failed to express. Till late in the evening, an uneasy calm prevailed. Probably, both were asking the same question “Why me?” Even after leading such a pious and regimented healthy life, why this has happened to me? At night, we talked to each other. No point in prodding over the above questions, which only GOD can answer and will probably remain unanswered forever. Every day a large no. of innocent people get killed/wounded and there are many others in hospitals, battling for life, for no fault on their part. Unfortunately, now it’s our turn to face what God has destined for us. We could sulk and cry or face it squarely like a soldier. We decided to take the latter course and fight out the killer disease. The decision was taken, we kissed each other ‘good night’ and slept peacefully.
The next day, I and my wife went to meet Brig AK Dhar (our consultant). He patiently explained to us about the disease, treatment protocol, the side effects and above all the need to remain positive. He said treatment will commence in 10 days after all reports are received. Chemotherapy will go on for the next four to six months. In the end, we had only one request – “We had planned a family holiday in Sikkim after 3 days. Can we go after the biopsy and before reports come in, for this holiday”. He smiled and nodded. He must be astonished to find a family who wants to go on a sojourn after hearing about cancer. That’s the metal and spirit, we soldiers are made of.
We went for the holiday, enjoyed to our heart’s content and then cut short the visit by two days to be in time for treatment/test. No one in the group, even our children could ever guess. After their return, we broke the news to all our relatives and friends. They were all awe-struck and surprised as to how we could behave so normally, during the trip, with such a storm locked in our hearts.
It’s very aptly said that. “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”. Now that the inevitable has happened, we opted out of suffering and decided to face cancer squarely.
For the uninitiated like I was, chemotherapy is the administration of very toxic drugs through IV injections or orally, in 21 days cycles. These toxic drugs kill anything fast-growing like cancer cells. Unfortunately, along with that it also kills good cells like WBC, RBC etc produced by the bone marrow, in the body. These potent drugs have many side effects, which have to be managed or simply endured, if not subdued by medicines. After my first day of chemotherapy, Dr AK Dhar came to meet me and smilingly said “Sir! Your chemo is over for the day and you didn’t feel anything. It will just be repeated like this”. That was a very simplified version of a complex problem, as I realized later. Lance Armstrong has very beautifully described Chemotherapy and I quote- “The question was which would kill me first- the Chemo or the Cancer? That’s chemo for you”.
The Tough Routine
I tried to keep myself busy so as to avoid thinking of the disease. Fortunately, I had limited side effects of chemo since my body was physically strong and I always reminded cancer that you have made a wrong choice, buddy! I use to even get my office files to the ‘Chemo Day Care Centre’ in the hospital and do my work, while chemo drugs were being administered through IV. I would often go to the office directly after PET-CT Scan or chemo doses, to attend to important office work/give a presentation. I did not take a single day’s leave during the 4-6 months of chemotherapy.
There were some inert residual nodes that remain in the body, in the case of NHL. The chemo Vs regression of disease doesn’t pay off beyond a point and hence they are left. The body took almost six months to limp back to normal strength and shape. Still, I found that there were certain faculties which had aged/slowed down faster, in the process of chemo and never recovered to their original state. That’s probably the price one has to pay for the battle against a resilient enemy called cancer.
The period following the chemo was well utilized to get back to shape. I was very regular in my quarterly checkups. Brig AK Dhar once also told me to avoid coming to the hospital because it makes me feel sick. Yet, I felt fully cured and fit mentally and physically. The feeling of triumph over the disease was euphoric and rejuvenating. I utilized this period to get my health back on the rails. The morning routine would start with one hour of yoga followed by 30 min of pranayam. Evenings were packed with long walks followed by an hour of physical fitness regime in the gym/swimming pool. I could shed off all the extra kilos from the side effects of chemo.
Well Deserved Rewards
At the end of 2009, I was nominated to attend M Phil Course in Strategic Defence Studies at the prestigious National Defence College, New Delhi. This was probably a reward for my battle on two fronts – command of a brigade in Delhi and cancer, an enemy within. As my ex-CO commended me by saying -. “To Command an Artillery Brigade in Delhi is an achievement in itself. To do it alongside battling cancer is excellent and to get nominated for NDC, in such circumstances, is superlative”. I bowed my head in reverence of the Almighty. This recognition further cemented my confidence in my own capabilities and faith in god.
The year with the golden batch just flew past with a fun, friends and foreign trips. I thought I will never have to look back but that’s when god laughed and revealed its agenda to me, towards the end of the year. I somehow had a gut feeling that the lymphoma is going to get back at me, one day, again, though I dreaded this, the most. My periodic checks indicated that the danger is not over and lurking around.
The result of the biopsy and other tests pulled the rug under my feet and trumpeted the bugle call for another battle with cancer. The biopsy report indicated that low-grade Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was evolving into high-grade large diffused B cells. In simple words, the disease (enemy) was becoming aggressive. My consultant Brig(Dr) AK Dhar was still at AHQRR Hospital. He said-“It has to be treated again and treated harshly”. I could read some serious trouble on his face as he tried to maintain a cool posture.
Enemy/disease always strikes when you are least prepared to handle it. After the NDC course and amidst posting to Jodhpur, I was already allotted an alternate house. The luggage was semi-packed. The end of the NDC course commitments had piled up. Everybody was in a euphoric mood but I was trying to smile a storm away, which I never wanted to happen again. All the images of chemo, blood test, canola blocks, side effects of chemo and hair loss began to haunt me again. There was nobody I could take out my angst on but then it had to be faced yet again. It took me two days to brace up and face the counterattack of the enemy (cancer) again.
After completion of all tests in the next few days, the doctors wanted to start the chemotherapy at the earliest. He asked me to get admitted on 1ST Dec 2010. I asked him for one last wish “let me attend the Annual Sports Day of my wife’s School on 01 Dec and postpone the schedule by a day”. My wife was the principal, of Delhi Area Primary School and I have not been able to attend her Annual Function for the last two years. A grudge, she will always nurse. The doctor smiled, similar to the one, when I requested a Sikkim trip before the first chemo and granted me pardon by a day. My family, friends and relatives joined heads together in solidarity with me. But the pain could not be shared because it’s a non-transferable account, so they all prayed for relief and helped in whatever way they could.
The Salvage Chemotherapy
The new protocol of chemotherapy was R-I.C.E., much stronger than the previous R-CHOP. Chemo effects were tolerated, like a soldier, with a smile, though it took a heavy toll on the body. Certain side effects of chemo were inevitable and one had to take it in its stride. So, what couldn’t be cured by doctors, was endured by me, with a smile.
Bone marrow transplant (BMT)
The Bone Marrow Transplant was a tough call. It was almost like a new lease of life after the BMT. There were many close encounters when I almost kissed death but survived to live for another date and tell this tale. Some of these narrow escapes are mentioned in succeeding paras.
Stem Cell Collection
The first step towards Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) is stem Cell Collection. In the case of an autologous transplant, the stem cells are collected from the patient’s body over a period of 2 to 3 days. The process was quite automated and painless but a serious affair for the medical people. One unit of blood is sucked in by the machine, stem cells are filtered out and this blood is put back into the body. The collected stem cells are processed and preserved at -95º C up to transplant. I recollect, on the third day of collection, the machine did not cut off the draw of blood after one unit. It was almost two units when the alert duty JCO noticed it and switched off the machine. It could have become dangerous because entire blood could have been drained out of the body. The whole team of doctors and assistants got into serious mode. I owe this second lease of life to dedicated professionals like JCO on duty.
A Hickman catheter was inserted in the chest on 4th March 2011. On 5th March, I was wheeled into BMT Centre and doctors tried to push medicine through this catheter, some infection which had been embedded either from the manufacturer or OT, got into the blood. Within minutes, I had severe chills, shivering and a very high fever. I became unconscious and incoherent in my responses. The agony lasted 90 mins. Finally, with medicines, Temp came down with heavy sweating and I regained my senses. My wife and doctors would have missed a heartbeat but they held their ground with all seriousness. This infection delayed the BMT process by 15 days.
The actual process of transplant started with heavy-dose chemotherapy on 20 Mar 2011 (Holi). It lasted six days and a transplant was done on 27 and 28 Mar 2011. The side effects of chemo and transplant took a heavy toll on the body. It was difficult to remain afloat. I was put on DIL (Dangerously ill Patients list). My wife was much more than a caretaker in those hours of crisis. Along with taking care like a child, she gave me a lot of encouragement, when I use to feel down and beaten. As if the problem were not enough, fever also came knocking. Body Temp used to shoot up to 103ºC and low body counts added to the misery caused by high temp. it was tough but there was no looking back. Finally, WBC counts started upward surge and I was wheeled out on 11th Apr, after a successful transplant in 37 days. Finally, on 19th Apr 2011, I bid adieu to the hospital, fully cured. The malady of this disease is that ‘when you are looking OK, you are sick and when you are cured, you look sick’.
The third encounter
I had a complete remission period of 05 years in which I got promoted to Major General, completed my Army service and retired on 31 Dec 2015. After retirement, I was picked up by Amity Group of Education Institutes as Dean of Student welfare (DSW) at Amity University, Rajasthan. During periodic checks, it was noticed that some dormant nodes have started becoming active again. The doctors were in dilemma to treat me again or keep me under observation. My daughter was to get married after six months. She put her foot down to say that treatment will take precedence and the wedding can wait. So, I had to take one more round of six cycles of Chemotherapy again. Medical science has made much progress in these five years and the medicines given had very less side effects. Again, I conquered cancer for the third time and returned back to normalcy after six months. Today after six years of remission thereafter, cancer is a bad dream, better forgotten. I maintain a very healthy regime of cycling, long walks, yoga and exercises along with a good diet to boost the body’s immunity so that cancer dare not touch me again.
The lymphoma had a major impact on my life. It transformed me a great deal and if I put it simply, It evolved me into a better human being.
- Never Say – “Die” As we all say- ‘victory and defeat are all in the mind’. I and my entire family never let the disease dominate us. We took it, as a fight against an enemy within and with a certainty that we will overcome it, in the end. Never give up and die before death strikes. Psychologically, I use to call myself a winner every day and it was this positive attitude that cured me again and again.
- Karma Vs Destiny. I have always been a Karmyogi, one who believes in moulding his life through karma (hard work). Always challenge your own capability and accept higher challenges to get the best out of you. But now, having a disease that is not caused by my karma or lifestyle or bad habits, I keep wondering whether karma can be all or its destiny which leads the life. One can’t change destiny, the good karma notwithstanding.
- Don’t Say – ‘Why Me’ But ‘Try Me’. Adversities do come in life because God tests those who are able to withstand it. There is no point crying every day and saying WHY ME. Rather challenge the disease and say TRY ME. This will give you the confidence and willpower to face the challenge and beat cancer.
- Compassion. A traumatic experience in life makes a person more compassionate. Seeing life and death so close and many fellow patients suffering from many worst ailments, I developed much more compassion towards them. When I find people sitting in high offices and treating all others who have medical problems with mistrust and disdain, I pray to the almighty to make them more considerate. I also request them to have some concern and sympathy in dealing with those, with whom god has not been so kind.
- Organisation Support. The organizational support in my fight against cancer was total. Army is such a wonderful organisation that holds your hand when you need it most. All those who could help did so willingly. All the administrative requirements were met, by telephone call only.
- Joy in Small Things. As we went along the path of acute treatment, which appeared mending, I would endeavour to find joy in small things. I would jump with joy like a child if a doctor reduced one injection or show joy as a bowler would do, who has taken a wicket in the first over. The doctors and nurses would laugh/smile at my childish outbursts of joy but these small potions of joy provided adrenalin to keep me going.
- Sabki Ladai. Family, friends and relatives are your support system. As I started on the painful journey everyone joined hands to provide much-needed support in whatever way they could. The organizational support from Indian Army was excellent. My bosses always understood my predicament and they had full empathy for me. It was this synergized approach that defeated cancer comprehensively, again and again. The true value of family and friends is realized in adversity only. It’s these, all-weather, few good fellows who restore your faith in humanity.
- Dedication of Doctors and Paramedics. I always had high regard for doctors and support staff. Now having seen them so closely for a prolonged period, my respect for them has increased multifold. Brig AK Dhar was of course, a friend, consultant and guide. The nursing staff always worked with a dedication certainly beyond the call of duty and utmost sincerity. My kudos to all of them for giving life back to patients like us. I owe this second lease of life to the doctors and the medical staff. We must always remember to thank them, and not only god, when cured.
Fighting cancer is a joint war
Fighting cancer is a joint war on this ‘Emperor of maladies’. It’s a battle in which the patient, his family, Government and doctors along with medical staff have to fight with synergy to overpower this malicious enemy of humankind. Everyone has to perform his part very well. Though, it’s a non-transferable account which each individual has to endure himself, support from near and dear ones just makes the suffering easy. The fight is more at a psychological level than physical. Psycho-Oncology is a subject which is gaining traction in the 21st-century fight against this deadly disease.
As a soldier, I always took life as a battle, where winning was the only way and there was no place for runners-up. I have battled cancer thrice and triumphed over it again and again. There is no doubt that the doctors and drugs killed it while I confidently stood my ground. Every one of us has to die one day but I am sure, I won’t let cancer be the cause of my death.
The question was – whom would chemo kill first, cancer or me — Lance Armstrong