The very mention of cancer can send even the Hulks of the world into hiding (hey, Avengers fans). After all, who wants to lay helpless in bed a la Aman of “Kal Ho Na Ho”, or make peace with “Babumoshai zindagi lambi nahi badi honi chahiye? The depiction of cancer in films and shows has probably become a deterrent for the many people who want to take action and beat the villain out of its wits, but just can’t gather the courage to.
There are others like Shormistha Mukherjee, co-founder of a digital agency and author of Cancer, You Picked The Wrong Girl published by Harper Collins, who has offered a no-holds-barred of her battle with cancer, with a whole lot of sass and humour. The riveting read details the hardships she underwent during her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and makes you feel like she’s literally having a heart-to-heart conversation with you!
In an exclusive chat with HealthShots on World Cancer Day 2022, Mukherjee opens up about her brush with cancer, her learnings during the journey, and more.
Cancer and laughter don’t go hand-in-hand is what we would like to believe. Let’s just say they are like chalk and cheese. But Mukherjee’s account on cancer will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
On being asked how she chose to look at the dreadful disease through this lens, she’s quick to reply, “I never set out to write a humorous take on cancer. The idea was to just write about what I went through. When I was diagnosed with the disease, I wanted to know if there’s are any other women living in India and treated here, who have been through this journey. I read a lot anyway, so I was on the lookout for a book like this, but found nothing.”
She did stumble upon some blogs, and met a few cancer survivors too. And while all the accounts she came across were motivational and inspirational, Mukherjee wanted to know the ‘real’ stuff.
“For instance, I had no idea my eyebrows and eyelashes would fall off. I remember somebody tweeted to me saying, “Hey, you sound so upset about your hair going, but this is also going to happen. I had nowhere to turn to, in terms of reading what the process was like, so I started documenting my journey on a blog,” she shares.
Mukherjee’s words would flow, and she would write it all down. She would write as and when she felt like it. It helped that she’s a writer, and taps into the power of words to release her emotions.
“Writing is nothing short of therapy for me. I can work things out and deal with them, if I write it all down. At the same time, I also became aware of the fact that it was a bit distressing for my parents, because I was still going through the treatment. And to read it was double the pain for them. So, I stopped writing my blog,” she added.
In the process, a lot of people began reaching out on social media, and she also received a call from a leading publisher. At first, she was skeptical if she should write the book, but Mukherjee realised that even if one person found solace in her journey, it was all worth it.
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“And to be honest, I never wrote for an audience. It was like free therapy for me, but yes, I was very conscious of the fact that there are all kinds of cancers, and even within breast cancer, there are several types and stages. Everyone’s experiences are different, and each of these is valid. I am not a doctor who can give advice, but I can share my story. There are so many people who do not get the opportunity to talk about their journey; I had it and I wanted to voice it out,” she explains.
Mukherjee knew she had to be utterly transparent and honest about what she wrote because, in the process, it will also help to break the silence around breast cancer.
“It is a gynecological cancer, and as we know breasts have always been sexualised. So, it is an awkward conversation,” she adds.
While it’s understandable that rising up to a challenge like cancer is not the easiest thing to do, Mukherjee urges everyone to visit a doctor at the earliest, in case they discover anything suspicious.
“In my case, I’ve had benign lumps all my life, so I thought even this time around, it will be benign. It was my biggest mistake. I know of a lot of people who have written to me or told me similar stuff. Honestly, with breast cancer, early detection is the best. I mean, you can even be detected at stage zero,” she says.
Mukherjee believes it’s also because cancer itself is under the shroud of secrecy. She refers to a recent incident at a bookshop, where she saw someone looking at her book with interest, and then dropping and putting it aside within minutes.
“You’re not going to get cancer from touching a book, but that’s how scared we are. Being scared is fine, but being scared and not doing anything about it is stupid. I urge people NOT to be like me, because you know I am privileged and educated, and should have been way smarter about this,” she says candidly.
Be it breast cancer or any other kind, the bodily changes may not be the easiest to accept for any survivor. Mukherjee didn’t imagine it to be so hard, but over the 9 months of her journey, it occurred to her that so much was changing.
“It’s like a physical marker of the fact that you have cancer. Every time you look in a mirror, or every time you go somewhere, it’s there for you to see. Say, even if you go out to a shop or walk, or even to restaurants and cafes, just the way people look at you, it’s very hard to describe what it is. You know, it’s very hard. It’s very hard to see,” she says.
Cancer treatment does bring with it a whole lot of physical changes, but the mental and emotional pressure is also unimaginable. There was a point in her journey, when Mukherjee started realizing that she was getting very mentally fatigued.
“My family and friends really supported me, and were always there for me. They never treated me as if I needed to be locked away. I was never considered a bechari. In fact, I recall I was pretty sick after one of my chemotherapy sessions, and then it got better after some time. A friend of mine came home and literally pushed me to take a bath. I think a combination of love and tough love is important,” she shares.
There were some days when Mukherjee was really down and out, but she has so much gratitude because there were so many people who put her ahead of their lives.
More often than not, we really don’t know what to say to a cancer survivor. Sometimes, our words may sound insensitive or unwarranted, but that’s also because we don’t know better. That’s why Mukherjee is here to help us out, “The best thing is to try avoid projecting your version, something that you may have read or watched, on to another person. This devalues my experience, since you are putting your own impression.”
She recalls an instance when someone asked her to just eat ‘raw vegetables’, because their uncle benefited from it. Mukherjee says the best way to be supportive in such cases is to really ask what a cancer survivor wants.
“You just have to listen or accompany them to their chemo; these are things they need the most. Spend time with them, and always ask what you can do for them. Be a good listener without passing on your own judgment or your own impression into it. And if they say they don’t need anything, believe it,” she concludes.