x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Patience, trust, will, prayer: the keys to surviving cancer

Cancer is a lonely battle, which each person fights on his own. Columnist Hari Chand Aneja knows that it is a battle that can be won – because he did.

The doctor's face showed genuine concern. "There is some growth on your vocal cords," he said very softly. "We need to take a sample and check it." He had very gentle eyes. It is not easy for any doctor in the world to tell his patient that he may have cancer.

For some years, my voice had been hoarse and tapered off in mid-sentence. Some days, I was unable to utter a word. I went through a succession of meetings with doctors and a battery of tests.

After that critical meeting with the specialist, I dwelt on the ramifications for many evenings. If the growth were malignant, it might result in the removal of my voice box. I would never speak again. I would have to write or learn sign language to communicate with anyone.

Countless worries assailed me. What if I am alone and there is an emergency? How do I ask for directions on a street? And my grandchildren would never hear my voice. At 75, my eyesight and hands were also weakening. How could I depend only on writing?

The prospect of losing your voice permanently is nerve-racking. The voice of a person - the sound, resonance, timbre, modulation and pitch - reveals volumes about personality, character and mood.

It was then that I realised that cancer is a lonely battle, which each person fights on his own.

Since many types of cancers are life threatening, the word itself has become intimidating. A few days ago, I read that a 23-year-old man had committed suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer. I recount my own struggle so that other patients do not give up.

In my fight, I learnt three lessons.

The first lesson was that, although there is intense pain and fear while combating cancer, one has to be infinitely patient. I visited six hospitals in all, many repeatedly. I interacted with eight doctors. Each time you visit a new hospital or doctor, you repeat your agonising story.

There are challenging moments. For instance, I needed a surgical biopsy to be performed under local anaesthesia. But the doctor could not reach the vocal cords through the pipe inserted in my mouth. There was intense pain and some bleeding in my mouth and throat and, after trying for hours, the doctor said the procedure could not be completed. I refused to give up. At my insistence, another doctor was arranged.

That day I spent hours in an awkward position, taking no water, with a dry, parched throat. Finally the sample was taken, but only after four and a half hours.

Then, there is the waiting period to determine whether the growth is malignant or benign. Every second, passes like a millennium. You pray. And the suspense steals your sleep.

The second lesson is that you have to trust your doctors. I did rigorous homework about to which doctors, treatments and hospitals I would entrust myself. However, after the decision, I placed myself in their care with absolute faith. During radiation sessions my entire face was covered, except my mouth. Administered under general anaesthesia, these sessions were gruelling. However, you have to trust the doctors. And remember: it is nerve-racking for them too.

The third lesson is that one must have strong willpower. However exhausting the processes, you have to grit your teeth and just hang on. Sometimes, when the growth is malignant, the treatment is protracted over years.

A touch of concern from the doctor, the love of your family, an encouraging word from a colleague, a kind touch from a nurse - all of these buoy the spirit.

And one more conclusive lesson: in our age of technology, the power of prayer is still paramount. This sounds old-fashioned, but from my own experience, prayer does work.

After a surreal fight lasting three years, filled with CT Scans, radiation therapy, laser treatments and surgery, my vocal cords were spared. For me, it has been a miracle to be able to talk in the years since. Every word I utter is a blessing, every day a gift.

Combating cancer is tough, but it is possible to cope through discipline and courage. There is urgent need, everywhere, for more cancer research and treatment.

Our world spends trillions of dollars on military machines every year. If some of the money spent on guns were diverted to cancer research, we could prevent millions of deaths. Those priorities have to change.


Hari Chand Aneja is an 90-year-old former corporate executive based in Mumbai who now keeps busy with charity work