I had been married three years on that sultry June afternoon.
Delhi and I had come to the conclusion that we couldn’t get along. We parted ways with equal determination on both sides. We still cordially loath each other, which is very fine with me. I relocated to my hometown while my ex was still reluctant to leave Delhi and continued to live there for one more year.
On that terrible day in June, he called me from Ajmer, his hometown where his parents lived. I had no idea he had any plans to visit Ajmer. Before I could express my surprise or ask him what took him there unexpectedly, he woodenly said, “Mummy has been diagnosed with cancer of the uterus. The doctor here is an idiot. I’m taking her to Tata Memorial, Mumbai. You must leave day after tomorrow and reach there. I will reach tomorrow and call you to give you the number of the place we’ll be staying.”
Then he rang off.
That wasn’t my first encounter with cancer. My great- grandmother, a saintly woman who lived a spartan and austere life of an ascetic was the first victim to the beast called Big C. I was a very young child then so the tragedy did not manage to leave its scar upon me. This time though, the horror was in my face. Cancer!?!!
My mother-in-law’s life was moderate and regular. She ate only satvik food, without onions or garlic… or any other strong spices. She rose promptly at 3.30 every morning to mediate, no matter what time she went to bed. When I got married, she once told me that until a couple of years ago, she had found it very difficult to understand the word ‘tired’. She couldn’t understand how people could get tired. She was tireless herself even though she single-handedly managed running a household with two boisterous boys and an extraordinarily finicky husband. She did it all sans any help while she held a full day job teaching at a school.
Outwardly, she was calm and quiet, though there was pure steel inside. She was the most restful person I have ever come across. She had an amazing and almost intuitive ability to connect with children. The way she interacted with my daughter- then barely two years old- taught me how to be a mother. I am yet to find a parallel to her inordinate patience and forbearance.
For this gentle, saintly woman to have this horrible, invading disease was impossible. Willingly, I subscribed to my ex’s disbelieve in the efficacy of my mother-in-law’s doctor. She must be mistaken, I told myself. I got annoyed with her (the doctor) then, for giving us such a scare. The inefficient, clueless imbecile!
Four days later, I was sitting with her in the waiting area of the huge Tata Memorial Hospital. It was the court of last appeal for us; as it was for countless like us from all over the country. My mother-in-law, a frail looking, petite lady was sitting quietly beside me. She had given the sample for a biopsy to be conducted. We were awaiting results.
I have always been a very positive person. It takes a lot to get me dejected. When someone around me is feeling low, I would do my best to encourage them and hunt up a silver lining for them to smile about. That day I remember, I sat mute, very annoyed with myself for being a wet blanket when my mother-in-law needed me to be the sunshine. Minute after minute I sat dumb, hating myself for letting her down.
Something must have told her what the result of the test was going to be. I could sense her deep misery like a pall of darkness wrapped around her. As I sat helplessly by her side, holding her hand, she silently shook her head as she stared at the floor. I leaned in and said, “Kya hua mummy? (What happened mummy?)”
Still staring at the floor, her lips frozen with an inner terror and her voice trembling with a painful sense of betrayal, she said, “Mere shareer ne mere saath aisa daga kaise kiya? (How did my body betray me so?)”
I was awfully gauche and immature those days. I didn’t have the words to comfort her. All I could do was to kneel on the floor in front of her and hold her close. Like a lost, terrified child she huddled into me. Her body didn’t shake with sobs; not a sound issued from her mouth but I felt her silent tears drenching me. We sat that way for almost half an hour until the first spate of our tears had been let. I dared mot look into her eyes, but I knew I had to. I couldn’t let her face her body’s betrayal alone.
“Mummy, itne dino mein aapko kabhi laga ki kuchh gadbad hai? Aapke periods time par hote the? (Mummy all these days, did you ever feel that something was wrong? were your periods regular?)”
“Nahi”, she said. “Pichhale teen saalon se- tumhaari shadi ke kuchh mahine pehle se- mere periods regular nahi hain. Bahut heavy bleeding hone lagi thi- aur kabhi bilkul nahi hoti. Doctor ko dikhaya to unhone kaha ki menopause ki vajah se irregularity hai aur hormone injections ka course karaya. Lekin ye to kabhi nahi kaha ki koi gadbad hai. Cancer ka to naam bhi nahi liya!”
(No. In the past three years- a few months before your marriage- my periods have been very irregular. I was bleeding very heavily- and sometimes not at all. When I consulted the doctor, she told me that it is because of menopause and recommended a course of hormone injections. But she never told me that anything was wrong. Cancer was never mentioned at all!)
I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of what I might have to go through to get there. ~Pamela Bone
Just then my ex came with the report. He looked devastated and distraught. The verdict was in. There was no escaping it now.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus, stage IIB. The prognosis was bleak. There was a scant 5% chance of survival. The cancer had spread beyond the uterus. Everything would depend on there being no relapse after the first attack on the disease.
We did defeat the first onslaught with internal and external radiation. Once the side effects of the radiation subsided, she lived an active, energetic life for almost a year. But the enemy had not been eradicated; it lay in wait, biding its time. Its next attack was feral and merciless.
Just over six years from that sultry June day, at the age of 56, in the midst of her prime, my mother-in-law passed away in terrible, inhuman pain and discomfort. It could all have been avoided if her doctor had asked her to take a PAP test when she had consulted her for the first time.
It could have been me; or you.
—————————————————————————Note: This post was written for World Cancer Day which falls on 4th February.