Battling Cancer: They Tell You about Chemo, They Don’t Tell You about the Mental Fight

First Person

Battling Cancer: They Tell You about Chemo, They Don’t Tell You about the Mental Fight

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

Early in February 2010, when I asked my mother if she wanted to go for a movie, she shrugged and nodded her head vaguely. It was an uncharacteristic reaction. My mother was never vague about anything. When I put forth a choice of movies before her, the response was exactly the same shrug followed by the nod. Again, I was surprised. My mother has always been definitive in the choices that she makes – whether it’s a matter of moving cities or watching a film. Anyway, we went to the nearest multiplex and the movie we ended up watching was 3 Idiots.

While I was engrossed with the film, I kept checking on her intermittently, only to find her staring blankly at the screen. When she saw me observing her, she responded with a beaming smile, happy to have caught my attention. She didn’t talk much nor did she find any scene funny or moving. It was obvious that she wasn’t following the movie.

During the interval, as I returned from a quick trip to the food counter, I found her walking aimlessly a few rows away.

All my worst suspicions had come true and I felt the weight of realisation like a ton of bricks. The lesions in amma’s brain had returned. My mother, a cancer warrior, had become a victim again.


In the early 2000s, the world was abuzz with the importance of getting regular mammograms. It was all anyone could talk about. Breast cancer was the flavour of the season, like the Livestrong band. But I dismissed it. No family history, I reasoned. Besides, we were a family of healthy eaters and non-smokers.

But the cancer came anyway, not caring for reason or lifestyle. I returned home after work on a pleasant Chennai evening and was puzzled to see a biopsy report lying on the living room table. My mother had a lump in her breast about six centimetres big and she’d just had it tested. The words on the page leaped out at me: The sample had tested positive for malignancy. It was clinical assessment of my world coming to a crashing standstill.

The grind of the cancer patient and their caregivers is an altogether familiar one. Everybody tells you about the surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hospital visits with endless cups of hospital tea. The post-treatment check-ups that you go for, your heart in your mouth, dreading for any sign of metastases. There is everything out there on the reality of battling cancer but very little on the mental fight that it involves.

We desperately distracted ourselves through it. Watched many movies (never Anand), ate out indulgently and gave many sunlit afternoons over to Scrabble.

The wisest words came not from our friends or well-wishers. They came from our oncologist. His advice came with a reference to the yesteryear Bollywood movie Anand, where the protagonist suffers from cancer while his friend narrates the story and shares his insights.

“It’s never like Anand,” he told us simply. “Mentally, there are many phases before one can come to terms with cancer. So don’t rush it.”

It was the best advice we could have received. There would be no dramatic voiceovers, no spouting of poetry, no quick repartee, and very little humour. Anand tells you everything except the actual day-to-day handling of living with the disease. And it’s the day-to-day handling that really calls for a fight.

My mother fought with all the reserves of mental strength she could muster. She diligently took all the tests that were advised post-treatment. And yet it spread, like a nasty, unforgiving creature focused on nothing but its own progress. First, it resurfaced in her lungs, and after a couple of years it reached the brain.

We desperately distracted ourselves through it. Watched many movies (never Anand), ate out indulgently and gave many sunlit afternoons over to Scrabble. And we would talk. Talk incessantly and ceaselessly, as if we had to hit the maximum words-per-day counter. We even talked through her lumbar puncture, where drugs were administered into the spinal fluid through an excruciatingly painful procedure. We laughed giddily when the results came in a couple of months later: The treatment had indeed worked and the lesions in the brain had disappeared.

And then at 3 Idiots, just after the scene where Kareena Kapoor elopes from her own wedding, it came back. Stronger than before.

This time, the fight was quick and silent. By March, my mother had slipped into a coma and a month later, she was dead. The battle that had lasted five long years was finally over.


3 Idiots is one of those annoying films with a habit of returning to TV every other week. Every time I catch it, I sit and watch it. But every time I sit down, I stop midway. No matter how hard I try to sit through it, I fail. I cannot shake off the feeling that there is another pair of confused eyes right beside me, unable to make sense of what is happening. Unable to remember where she is. Unable to recall who she’s with.

I still wonder if during her last few months, she even knew who I was or took comfort from the fact that I was around her most of the time. How much of external stimulus was she able to perceive? Were her reactions responses or some form of subconscious expression? I will never know and I understand that is the lot of anyone who has ever been a caregiver. Recognition is not one of our rewards.

It’s been many years now and people tell me that I’ve learnt to cope with the loss. I disagree. Personally, I believe that the day I can sit through 3 Idiots without tearing up I will consider myself healed.