I was born and brought in a happy family in New Delhi. I had a twin sister and a younger brother. Both my parents were working. I graduated from Hindu College, Delhi University in 1977 and went to Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow (erstwhile USSR) for an integrated course in Geology. Finally, back home again, I did my Ph.D. in Geochemistry. After getting married I stayed in Eastern parts of India and for the first time saw the economic and social difficulties that I had never come across in Delhi.
We had just moved to NIT Silchar, Assam in 2006 when I discovered a lump in my left breast. I did not expect it to be cancer but I went to the doctor the very next day. My biopsy report confirmed breast cancer. I was terribly shocked--sort of in a trance. I immediately flew to Delhi for treatment as we knew Dr Dinesh Pendharkar (senior oncologist) there and he took my treatment under his wings. I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer and I had to go for surgery – Modified Radical Mastectomy (MRM) on 24th March 2006. I was smiling and trying to stay normal while being wheeled for surgery.
My physical weakness started after the surgery and during chemotherapy. Whenever I felt healthy enough, I kept myself occupied in some work or the other but there were moments of anxiety and depression when I would worry about my college-going daughter’s future. Once I even told my sister to take care of my only daughter Jessica if anything went wrong with me. I was quite satisfied with my doctors and their team of healthcare workers. I was in good hands. I learned how to use the computer during my chemo, wrote a few articles, as well as a handbook called ‘Kick the Beast out of your Life’.
In 2008 I got reconstruction surgery done, which, at that time (and perhaps even now), was not understood by many in our country and not very acceptable. People get scared of the word surgery in the same way as they are afraid to even utter the word cancer. I felt complete after the surgery and gained confidence.
For seven years I lead a happy go lucky life again, travelled a lot and started spreading cancer awareness. I had completely forgotten about my disease. In 2012 I, along with a friend (late Rashmi Kapoor), opened charitable trust called RACE to rein-in-cancer. But the year 2013 was an acid test in my life. Suddenly, I was diagnosed with a relapse- cancer was now found in my sternum bone. I was more shocked than when I was diagnosed the first time. Rashmi also passed away that year due to the spread of cancer in her body. It was a devastating time.
Cancer related fatigue (CRF) started paving its way through my body and mind because I started getting relapse every 2-3 years. In fact, cancer cells may freeze or get killed by one type of medication but with time they become immune to it and start growing again. Then the medication needs to be changed or chemotherapy has to be given again. CRF is related to physical, mental and emotional stress, may lead to acute depression, loneliness, leading a solitary life. I became my own healer and whenever I felt such symptoms, I would engage myself in reading, writing or spreading awareness, counselling cancer patients and their caregivers.
My family has been highly supportive of my treatment as well as of the awareness and other activities we carry out through our organisation RACE. I am alive today because of all the support I get from my family, RACE team members and friends. Today in 2020 I am still undergoing chemotherapy. The struggles I have been facing with cancer since 2006 have made me more aware of myself.
I feel as if various Ritas are enveloped one inside another, just like in a matryoshka- a Russian set of dolls of different sizes, but having exactly the same in looks, placed one inside the other. The outermost doll is the biggest – inside it there can be 10 or 20 dolls. When I am feeling good health-wise I feel enthusiastic to work for RACE, I plan events and activities, I am one Rita. When I cannot get up from bed and I start feeling that all is lost, I am another Rita. I feel I have developed many Ritas within me who are empathetic, compassionate, affectionate, worrisome, fearful, courageous, active. All these are enveloped one into another. We go on opening the Matryoshka and each doll comes out one by one. Similarly, with each environmental impact one Rita jumps out while the rest stay enclosed until it is their turn. Whenever I am in good health I plunge into activities forgetting all about rest of the Ritas in me.
Till date I have taken four sets of chemo and the fifth one is on the go. The physical and emotional changes have given me a new perception to life. About a year back I joined Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism. I panic no more and am determined to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients.
IN THE WORDS OF JOSEI TODA
"I put faith first, 'you need never panic or get flustered. No matter what the problem or situation, the important thing is to chant about it deeply and strongly. Even when you feel deadlocked, that’s precisely the time you can bring forth the true power of the Buddha"
If I am able to reach out to help and make a positive difference to even one person it would be an achievement for me. The tortures I undergo due to endless treatment bring out the conviction in me that I have to get back to my normal self for the sake of others as well as for myself. I must transform my poison into medicine. Cancer may be strong, it’s treatment even stronger, but I am the strongest and will share my victory very soon!
My advice to newly diagnosed patients is that they should keep calm, understand their own treatment, take a second opinion if not convinced, and also seek help from support groups. Everyone should be vigilant of their symptoms, as early detection saves lives.
Since there is no stepping out for me, I have joined hands with the beast called cancer. If I can face it bravely for so long you can do it too!
Dr Rita Banik – CNS (Citizen News Service)