It Could Have Been Me

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.

Illustration Mine
Illustration Mine


Note: This post was written for World Cancer Day which falls on 4th February.
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32 thoughts on “It Could Have Been Me”

  1. I have seen numerous cases within my family. The recent one being the most painful. My niece who is just 17 years old was detected with Ewing’s Sarcoma (Stage IV). She is the only child and a very active one; so much that this is equally painful for all who know her. Having seen her as a brilliant danseuse, it was really painful for us to see her completely bed-ridden as her pelvic bones had started eroding fast. She is now counting days.

    1. Oh God! You have my sympathies Rekha. To see a vibrant young life blighted by the disease is truly awful.

      May God ease her suffering.

  2. That was soul-touching post. Despite all that she suffered, your MiL must have been a very strong lady. Peace be with her soul, always. Thanks for sharing this story. It could be any body, at any time, in any form and in any way.

    1. Welcome to my blog Sreeja. 🙂

      She was indeed a very patient and courageous lady. No matter how much she suffered during the years of her illness, she was always solicitous of others. She never thought of herself, was never irritable or out of sorts- when she had every right to be.

      Thank you for reading. 🙂

  3. I’m sacred to think what she must have gone through…and what people who suffer from it go through.. Who knows when this decides to attack us out of the blue… Scary…

    1. Naba, My MIL went through terrible agony for almost 6 years. I wouldn’t wish such pain on my worst enemy. And yet, I never saw her lose her temper or be irritable, no matter what she went through. I miss her very much. 🙁

      Just take care of yourself. Hugs.

  4. The emperor of maladies, indeed. That sanguine opening never betrayed what I was about to run into at the next turn of the phrase. “Mere shareer ne mere saath aisa daga kaise kiya?” It hit me with a force. Yet, the older folks, many of whom are just wisps of memory now, would often ruminate: What is there to puppets of clay?

    1. Right you are Umashankar. Maati ke putle ka jeena kya aur marna kya?
      I can still recall her face and the tone of her voice when she said those words. I just couldn’t take it.
      It is such a pleasure to see you here after so long. How is your book coming along? 🙂

      1. The pleasure is mine, Dagny.

        As for the book, The candle of time is burning at two ends and a few places in between. I am not sure which will end first, the flame or the candle.

    1. Three in one year was three too many Janaki! That must have been so traumatic for everyone. Nobody deserves to die this way indeed. 🙁

  5. Reading and hearing about the big C is so scary in itself, I wonder how you and your MIL went through all of this 🙁 I cannot even begin to imagine the draining effect psychologically. I wonder why PAP smears and routine gynecological exams are still not a regular thing here with every girl who gets into her late teens. So many ladies I know visit gynecologists only after their marriage or – even worse – during pregnancy. It’s scary. People need to be much more into prevention. I am sure, writing about it would have been really tough too. Strength to you, Dagny. Take care.

    1. It was certainly an awful time Deepa. Things got so bad towards the end that we prayed for her to be released from her body. I will never forget the pain and agony she suffered. It was traumatic for the rest of us to witness it.
      Your words give me solace. Thank you.

  6. Oh Dagny! This one brought tears to my eyes. I was there with you when you suffered next to her. I have lost my mother when she was 52; I know the pain of helplessness.

    And you know, this is my deepest fear — I am not afraid to die but I am afraid to suffer, and please God let me be around to raise my kids to adulthood, healthy and smiling till my time comes. Thank you for writing this. We women ignore our health. It is very important that we do health checks regularly and take care of our health.

    1. The trauma of my MIL’s illness and demise has lost its edge over the years Rachna. But your comment made me tear up. It is terrible to lose a loved one to this utterly degrading disease. It robs you of basic dignity and independence and erodes your self- esteem by making you helpless and dependent on your family. Of all the things she went through, her dependence on others was the most difficult for my MIL to bear.

      We women certainly ignore our health. I am probably the worst offender of all. It is such a chore for me to get even my thyroid levels tested regularly. I avoid it for months on end. 😛

      1. Yes being dependent on someone else is what completely breaks the spirits especially for an otherwise independent person.To see them suffer thus, really breaks the heart.

        I am going to crack my whip if you don’t get your tests done regularly. I do all my tests diligently like a good school child :). I guess that is the most that we have in our hands. You can never say what disease can strike whom. At least we try our best to stay healthy.

        1. Oh man! I asked for that!

          Ok ok hunterwali, I’ll go for my tests. Pakka… no postponing anymore. The only thing is, the endocrinologist I go to is such a pain. He makes you wait and wait until you feel roots sprouting from under your blessed feet!

          But… but… I’ll go! I’ll go… bola na! *mops brow distractedly*

  7. That brought back memories. My mother had breast cancer – diffuse tumor, so identified after it had affected her lymph nodes. Things seemed to be going well initially after the radio and chemotheraphy but the cancer attacked her spine and she was first semi-paralyzed losing the use of her legs. I have never yet seen a person being s cheerful even after being diagnosed with cancer. It was only after she became dependent on others for the smallest things that she lost her cheer and her will to live. If I even have a bit of courage to laugh at adversity it must only have rubbed off on me from her.

    Having lived in close quarters with cancer for 5-6 years I can understand how awful it must have been for you.

    1. If you are any indication of her positivity, your mom must surely have been a lighthouse of good cheer dear friend.

      She sounds like a wonderful person. It must have been unbearable for her to be dependent on anyone. As I wrote in reply to Rachna’s comment, for my MIL too the dependence was harder to bear than her pain. It was awful to see that steel will break down in the last days.

      May God spare us all of such a fate!

  8. Dagny , sorry for the loss of your ma-in-law. The way you have described , I can visualize that she was an active , calm and serene lady. But the Big C strikes the most unlikely people and leaves the family members devastated.

    1. Your words make me draw a deep breath Kalpana. I will never forget the early morning, three days after she had passed away, when I woke up. As usual, my first thought was to go and check up on her, to see is she managed to sleep a bit during the night. And I realized suddenly that she is no more. I cannot describe the relief that flooded me because she would never suffer again and I would never have to stand by helplessly and watch her agony. Devastation describes it best.

      Thanks for reading.

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  10. Dagny ,
    I came here from Tuesday thingy from Indiblogeshwaris. I read this post and suddenly umpteen memories came gushing in my mind. My MIL passed away exactly two and half years after my marriage succumbing to C , exactly in similar manner ,ignoring her irregular periods (even Doctors thought it was a normal thing at her age)and being busy with our wedding preparations and everyday life. She was so full of life and zest but the illness sapped her of every ounce of energy .She remained a cheerful person when not attacked by pain . Mostly in the dead of night she wrenched with pain and would curl up and cry like a little kid. witnessing it closely left me scared and for many years I used to think it could be anyone and I used to get worried about my Mom ,masi and other aunts and I used to feel foolishly selfish that I was trying to save my people while my husband lost his mom.
    You wrote it so honestly and so well .I felt as if it was me at your place.

    1. Kirti, There really should be a redressal system in India too to sue incompetent doctors like they have in first world countries. But even if we had a way of getting a ruling quickly and painlessly, I fear our ‘fate/ destiny’ mindset wouldn’t let us do anything about it. We will justify our lack of action by saying that it was all meant to happen… or that suing the doctor wouldn’t bring our loved one back to life. It makes me so mad!

      I told my ex that we ought to sue the gynae my MIL was consulting, but it never happened.

      Thank you for sharing your story. It makes the pain of mine a little lighter. Take care!

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