Inside India’s cancer epidemic

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Inside India’s cancer epidemic

Sunday, 03 February 2019 | UMANG AGGARWAl

Inside India’s cancer epidemic

What seemed like a one-off case when Lisa Ray was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 has now spread like an epidemic in B-town. In only about a year, many more seemingly fit celebrities have been diagnosed, writes UMANG AGGARWAL

If you have had to indulge in small talk at a social gathering in India in the past few years, you would know that every second person has a theory about the country’s high cancer rate. In fact, if you have been to a wedding or a birthday celebration or even an old gang reunion where the conversation on at least one table has not inevitably drifted towards somebody being diagnosed with this disease, then you have been a part of quite a lucky gathering. Until a few years ago, when one mentioned the C-word, people almost instantly reached the tragic assumption that the affected person will not be able to survive. From air pollution and stress to fast food and mobile phones, almost everything about the world we live in has been seen as a cancer-causing threat by common people as well as researchers who have been trying to find out why the number of cancer patients has gone up in India in the past decade.

The past year saw a cancer epidemic of sorts breaking in the Indian film industry with even the young, fit, and health-conscious celebrities being diagnosed with it. To say the least, such reports have been difficult for both the general public as well as the cancer-stricken celebrities. For the general public, the lives of movie stars often translate into hope and aspiration. That’s mostly why information on celebrities’ diet plans, daily routine, and fitness plans finds so many takers.

So, reports about them getting cancer are both disheartening and quite frightening. They are bound to make a regular person get worried because Bollywood celebrities are the people who are looked up to when it comes to fitness. If they can be in such a difficult medical situation despite the fact that they often rely on professionally planned diets and exercise plans and can afford superior healthcare, God help the average Indian. It shows that there is practically no sure shot way of never getting cancer.

For the celebrities, one can only try to imagine the amount of self-doubt and physiological pressure that creeps in when they know that their appearance is going to change drastically. They can’t help the fact that they will look different with each chemotherapy session and that the whole process is almost inevitably going to be in the public eye.

Healed, the recently released biography of actor Manisha Koirala, gives readers a chance to try to understand this aspect of dealing with the illness as a public figure. Koirala, who has been celebrated for movies like Khamosh, Bombay, Mann, and Dil Se, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. In her book, she talks about how every sentiment, achievement, failure, lesson, and even desire started to look insignificant in comparison to the gravity of the disease that had taken over her body. Like any other human being, she had started questioning all her actions in life that had led her to the 2012 diagnosis. From getting sucked into a flamboyant, celebrity lifestyle to holding onto a sense of emotional insecurity that stemmed from a childhood experience, the actor analysed and reanalysed almost everything that she had ever done in her life, she writes. As she did that, the one feeling that kept nagging her was that she did not want to die. She felt like she was being “engulfed by darkness” and couldn’t help but struggle with the questions: “Why am I here?” and “Will I ever be able to hold my baby?”

One of the most important things that Koirala’s book does is that it gives a sense of what it means to be an Indian (woman) who has cancer. The actor-turned-author takes us through each of her reactions to cancer. And the reader realises that she went through the same set of experiences that most Indians, who have had to deal with cancer, go through. The first association with cancer is death. Be it because of representations in popular culture or direct/indirect references of people who couldn’t be treated in time or couldn’t afford to get advanced medical care against the illness, the very word ‘cancer’ brings a sense of hopelessness and tragic finality in the Indian mindset.

So, Koirala’s journey from feeling the same despair to being able to find the confidence to announce that “cancer is not a death sentence” to her fans and readers makes for one that is culturally relevant. It is cathartic in its detailing of the intensity of emotions that come with cancer. It has practical use as it gives the readers an idea about the lifestyle changes made by the actor in order to accelerate her healing process. And most importantly, it brings a much needed message of hope to those who still see the “fight against cancer” as a Sisyphean task.

Koirala’s book becomes all the more relevant as she talks about how even she couldn’t help but worry about people looking at her bald head and saying things like, “Haww! Kaisi thi, aur kaisi ho gayi! (Look how she was, and look what she has become now!)” At that point, like any other person, and probably more because she is a public figure, she felt terribly self-conscious and found her emotions to be in conflict with each other. She felt joy at the chemotherapy treatment working effectively, but she also felt worried and upset about being judged as less of a woman since she had lost her hair, her eyebrows, and her eyelashes. She mentions how uneasy she had felt when she had a chance meeting with Hrithik Roshan. And she also writes about how comforting it was when he had the sense to approach her and tell her how good she looked even then. It was a long while before Koirala was announced cancer free. But luckily, she was. So, fans and readers can look at the photos she shares from her treatment days and feel inspired by her strength and happy for her complete recovery.

But despite the happy and reassuring ending of the book, Koirala’s story is one of the many recent stories of even younger and relatively healthier celebrities being diagnosed with cancer. It does give one hope against what is generally seen as a dead end. But it still does not change the fact that to the average Indian, it seems like an epidemic of cancer has broken out in the country. If it wasn’t enough that cancer had crept into almost any social conversation about the well-being of long lost friends and extended relatives, the past decade made the fear of this epidemic all the more real. The list of famous faces from the Indian film industry who have been diagnosed with the disease would be bizarre if it was not so frightening and heartbreaking.

When model-actor Lisa Ray was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 37 in 2009, hers was seen as a one-off case. The fact that her cancer was of a rare kind — Multiple Myeloma which had been ‘treated’ in 2010 but relapsed in 2012 — only reiterated the testing uniqueness of her case. When she had started chronicling her cancer experiences in her popular blog, The Yellow Diaries, she was widely appreciated for handling the illness with grace and courage. But little did anybody know that Ray was going to become the poster girl for a whole new set of celebrities from the Indian film industry who would be diagnosed with cancer one after the other. Stories about celebrities like Sonali Bendre, Irrfan Khan, Rakesh Roshan, Tahira Kashyap, Rishi Kapoor, and even Emraan Hashmi’s son have each come with a thud and a deep sense of shock. While Emraan Hashmi’s son and Manisha Koirala have been declared cancer free, one still doesn’t know what fate has in store for the rest of the big names.

Till some time ago, in the popular imagination, cancer was something that would usually affect the older people, but in rare cases, it could affect younger people and even kids. When reports about celebrities like Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, and Mumtaj being diagnosed with cancer were written and read, there was always a sense of old age and the body’s declining strength being held as the culprit. Even movies and TV shows about being diagnosed with cancer had an element of fate’s selective cruelty towards the affected person at a young age. But with recent reports about so many younger celebrities battling cancer, that element of rarity has been taken away. It’s like a loose cannon of cancer has hit even seemingly fit celebrities who have never been known to have had an overindulgent lifestyle or to have abused their bodies.

Sonali Bendre, who had once become immensely popular as the “Nirma girl” and had gone on to become a big star with movies like Sarfarosh and Hum Saath-Saath Hain, has been sharing her cancer story on Instagram. In a post shared in July last year, she wrote, “Sometimes, when you least expect it, life throws you a curveball. I have recently been diagnosed with a high grade cancer that has metastised, which we frankly did not see coming. A niggling pain led to some tests, which led to this unexpected diagnosis... I’m taking this battle head on, knowing I have the strength of my family and friends behind me.”

Like others before her, Bendre, too, had to sport a bald look because of her chemotherapy treatment. Around October last year, the actor started posting her first few pictures with a shaved head. She captioned one of those with a quote from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: “I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.”

Bendre added, “I allowed myself to cry, to feel the pain, to indulge in self-pity... for a short while. Only you know what you’re going through and it is fine to accept it. Emotions aren’t wrong. Feeling negative emotions isn’t wrong. But after a point, identify it, recognise it and refuse to let it control your life.”

On December 31, she posted a picture from when she had long, healthy hair and wrote, “Throwback to my last blow-dry before I cut my hair. Now that my hair is gradually growing back, maybe I can look forward to another blow-dry in 2019!”

Tahira Kashyap, Ayushmann Khurrana’s wife, had been dealing with Stage 0 breast cancer and was positive that she had put it behind her until it came back. In October last year, she wrote on Instagram, “That’s what you do when cancer shows up. You show it the way out! It is a tough phase to be in, but then I would have never known my own strength, which is inherent in each one of us…” In January, she went on to post, “Can’t keep calm!!! Last and final chemo…It’s been some journey. Can’t keep calm!!! Last and final chemo!  It’s been some journey. The learning has been immense, some of which, I know, I will realise with time.” In her most recent post, she posted her first picture with a shaved head as she was “getting tired of the extensions”.

Following actor Emraan Hashmi’s son’s story fills one with immense pain and hope at the same time. Ayaan, who is now about nine years old, was diagnosed with first stage kidney cancer. Talking about it recently, the actor reportedly said, “It didn’t anyway, in any way, make any sense for us because there was no warning sign, there was no accompanying fever, there was no physical discomfort. There was only one thing that we missed as parents and that was the tumour that had grown on the left side... there was a bump and it went unnoticed. We thought it (the tumour) was getting bigger and I think the first thing we felt was a feeling of guilt. He was three years 10 months then and we’ve made the choices for this kid and where did we go wrong?” Thankfully, however, this cancer story had a happy ending as Hashmi recently wrote in an Instagram post, “Today, five years after his diagnosis, Ayaan has been declared cancer free. It has been quite a journey. Thank you for all your prayers and wishes. Love and prayers for all the cancer fighters out there, hope and belief goes a long way. You can win this battle!”

Actor Rishi Kapoor had only referred to a short “leave of absence from work” because of “some medical treatment” in America. But speculations about the disease being cancer started when his wife Neetu Kapoor wrote on social media, “No resolutions, only wishes this year! Less pollution traffic! Hope in future, cancer is only a zodiac sign! No hatred, less poverty, loads of love, togetherness, happiness and most importantly, good health.”

Rakesh Roshan was diagnosed with early stage squamous cell carcinoma of the throat recently and is undergoing treatment. His son, Hrithik Roshan, wrote an optimistic post on social media calling his father “the strongest man I know”.

Actor Irrfan Khan was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumour, a rare form of cancer, towards the middle of last year. In August, he reportedly said, “I have had the fourth cycle of chemo. And I have to have six cycles and then we need to have a scan. After the third cycle, the scan was positive. But we need to see after the sixth scan. And then we’ll see where it takes me.” As fans hope and pray that these celebrities recover soon, let’s also hope that the nation can bid goodbye to the cancer epidemic for good.

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