A single mum with two children, she was telling me about Christmas and the holiday season as she glanced through gossip magazines. “So, it’s an arranged marriage,” she said, turning towards where I was sitting, holding up pictures of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “And that’s what I was being talked into – meet this guy in London.”
We were all hoping she’d meet someone nice and kind, like herself. She’d had a rough marriage and when it ended, was left holding the short end of the stick.
“Hope you’re going to say yes,” I said.
“I don’t know, but there’s a problem you know,” Nancy* said.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, it’s a little difficult when you are bald and only have one breast,” she said reminding us that she was a mastectomy graduate.
For a moment the room was silent, then all of us broke into loud guffaws, the nurses shaking their heads in confused amusement. All four cancer graduates and all women, each with our own stories of courage and fear, joy and laughter that makes human beings tick. The gang of four – one German, one Swiss, one English and yours truly with different theses, ranging from breast to multiple myeloma (MM), liver to whatever.
Disease had brought us together but laughter and complicity keeps us together. The fact that we had forgotten was proof enough that all of us were focussed on healing individually and together. And we had forgotten even as we were meeting for our various shots and therapy in a clinic
We were four professional women whose new normal is living with cancer, but it defines none of us. We hold together, dealing with it at every step with our mind, attitude, reading, sharing what’s best for all and keeping a watch over each other. None of us wear wigs. It is too unreal to be real. Complicity between women, when it exists, is such a precious thing.
The supremely talented businesswoman (biker, racer, motivational speaker, fitness teacher, to name a few areas of her work) and role model Gul Panag tells me that in the background of patriarchal complicity is the “…default setting for women to empower each other.”
Brilliant – default setting. I shared that with the gang this week. Default setting has entered our language of complicity and empathy, laughter and advocacy. Thank you, Gul.
We are lucky. We live in a part of Switzerland and go to a clinic that offers cutting-edge therapies, treatments and cure. We are lucky and we have worked with each other to appreciate what we have without guilt. The bald head and one breast joke is signature of how far we have travelled away from negativity and fear. It can be done – the mind is an interesting laboratory.
Patty* has a small problem. She’s a high-flying executive in a multinational company who loves to cook when home. The first time I met her, she was on a professional conference call complete with excel sheets spread across her table, while on another phone she was telling someone broccoli should not be over-cooked. Between EBITDAs and health of the business pipeline, I heard her say if you don’t like what I am making for dinner tonight, make your own meal. I laughed, she winked and a bond was born.
Patty who juggles job, travel, chemotherapy and cooking makes what I think is one of the best uses of the iPad while working simultaneously on different devices. She lives with three men, “husband and two sons” she says rolling her eyes. Every Friday they get the menu for the next week on their various devices and they have 24 hours to respond. She shops and chops on Saturday, so no response means eat what’s on the table. No guilt.
This guilt thing is funny. I have met women from across the world, professionals and stay at home mums, young and old. It’s a conditioning from hundreds of years. Two of us have daughters, the other two have sons. We often speak about the luxury of options. Having a choice is a luxury and those of us who have it are almost required to clear space for those who don't in our private and professional settings. Every bit counts.
From my left ear, I am listening to music and from my right I pick up Frankenstein. What, where? Mary* is searching for essential oils on the net. Frankincense silly, she says, frankincense is good for building up the immune system. I imagine myself drowning my head in a tub of this essential oil. There is new peer-reviewed literature on how we can help our immune systems. Almost every day, there's a new piece to read about how important it is to destroy the disease through the mind. Amla and moringa (haldi is passé), frankincense and myrrh – Mary is the advisor on essential oils and food, pesticides and all things bio.
She’s involved in her commune’s politics and wasn’t sure she would return to it after she recovered. “That’s what the men in my committee were hoping because I raise all these questions about land and food, agriculture and development.”
So, what did she do? “I returned just before the holidays and read them what I think was the riot act.” She told them she was going to oppose random buildings popping up all over the place and even if her chances of success varied, she was not going to give up without a fight. Love it, dear warrior, absolutely love it. It is as if someone has written a common script for all of us. What are the chances that four women from different parts of the world find themselves jiving over cancer? I don’t believe in coincidence.
The term cancer graduate was coined by accidental actress and writer Lisa Rani Ray, who like me lives with MM. A common friend connected us in 2011 when I was diagnosed and I started reading Lisa’s Yellow Diaries where she blogged about her journey. Read here.
Words, turn of phrases, more words, emotions, thoughts said and felt, lived and beyond, death and rebirth, another shot at life, complete remission, silence – the language of cancer entered my life via Lisa’s word-craft. Always there for me when I needed advice, sending me the latest developments on treatments and therapies, nudging, sometimes even admonishing me to slow down, clear my calendar and turn towards what gives me most peace - music and writing in no particular order. We at The News Minute had the privilege of re-publishing a beautiful piece she wrote. Read here. Thank you Lisa.
Some thirty years ago I was to learn that in a large section of Mumbai there were only three ventilators in working condition. At the turn of this century I got to see first-hand the ravages of tobacco in India while working at the tobacco control programme at the World Health Organisation (WHO). It came as a shock.
So, why am I writing this? I am doing it in the hope that more people in India will speak about their graduation, their success stories, where they tripped and how they picked themselves up. Our public health system needs serious work and strong voices are critical for advocacy - prominent voices are speaking out on mental health. To people who ring me asking for advice I ask but one thing – advocate publicly for access, awareness and funds. We can learn from the Americans who are by far the best at public health advocacy. One of the most inspiring MM stories is that of Kathy Giusti who went from patient to a leader who drives research. Read her remarkable story here. If she can do it, so can others.
There's another reason for sharing this. It is to make the short point that I believe women are more resilient, multi-task naturally and have an innate sense of what needs to be done to protect peoples and societies - giving birth naturally carries with it the gift of learning and teaching protection. A nation that has ambitions cannot but be equally ambitious about its public health services. Imagine the power of women in India if we come together to develop a nation-wide public health movement? We the warriors would be unstoppable. Happy New Year.
Image: Representative image. Source: Sheila Sund, via Flickr.