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Ashika Maharaj

My personal fight against cancer. My life was just taking off on a new and positive direction, having just moved into our new dream home and my husband’s health back on track. It was late one evening when my husband alerted me to having a lump on my breast and insisted we go and have it checked out and that is when it all began.

“So, how did you find the lump?” that question will never get old! “Actually, I did not… my husband did!” This always leads to an “awkward moment” and an... OHH!... Well, enough said.

We consulted our Gynae who reassured us that it could not be cancerous as the lump was too big, too deep and movable to be the ‘BIG BAD C”. We scheduled a mammogram, which led to a biopsy and I never thought it will be anything serious. On the 6th of May 2008 as I sat in the surgeons rooms, expecting to be in and out within minutes, my worst nightmare was about to unfold. My surgeon looked at me and said... “I am sorry to inform you but I have bad news for you…. You have cancer… a grade 3 cancer, meaning it’s an aggressive and can spread fast”. My world just shook!… What is cancer?... What is Chemo?

While my husband and surgeon spoke in detail as to what the right procedure and treatment was for me!.. which oncologist I need to see!... how soon the op needed to done!... I sat there in total shock trying to digest the news. I felt sadness, bitterness, anger, hatred, resentment... How was I going to break the news to my 10 year old daughter and 6 year old son that mum has cancer? My mastectomy was scheduled two days later. My mind was in turmoil as I had to pack for the hospital... inform families… decide what to cook... sort the kid’s attire for school and show my husband where everything was kept because to me my mind registered… “Ashika, you are dying”.

I was brought up to be a God fearing Hindu, follow every ritual, fast and prayer. My mum told me to go to my prayer alter in the house to say my prayer good and well. I have always followed and obeyed whatever my mother said without question, but this was the last straw. “What do you think I have been doing all this time?” I yelled “everyone around me is telling me to pray… I have being praying my whole life and this is what I get!... NO! I don’t want to pray anymore If this is my reward for praying and believing in GOD!... leave me alone”. My faith just suffered an earthquake... My prognosis told me that I was dying and I just did not understand anything anymore.

After the mastectomy…OMG!... I was in so much pain but as I turned around there was my knight ( My Husband, Santosh) with a smile and tears in his eyes…he held my hands and said,“We will face this together one day at a time”. I remember yelling at the nurses when Santosh was asked to leave as I felt as if I was dying and could not bear to be alone. I did not give much thought to the fact that I have just one breast as my main aim was to get back on my feet. I was discharged on Mothers Day and I cannot explain my joy at getting HOME.

After all the hugs, kisses and tears on arriving home, I excused myself to have a shower which Santosh helped me with. Thereafter…he turned me around to face myself in the mirror and have a look at my body... During my chemo sessions my hair started falling so I opted to have Santosh shave it off in the presence of my kids. I did not inform any family members as I felt this was a personal moment and even though my heart was breaking .. I knew I could not cry in front of my children. ALONE... It was in the shower that I started crying uncontrollably. Suddenly I saw my daughter was in front of me and she said,

“Mum don’t cry because you are so beautiful”... that just touched my heart. After a while, it did not bother me being bald but we did try one on. We burst out laughing as it did not look like me so decided to buy fancy scarves instead. The wig would not change the fact that I had cancer and one breast. As the weeks of treatments passed by, I became more comfortable and positive about my situation. My husband must have picked up on this and decided to take things to the next level and by this I mean the “Sex”. One night as we lay in bed my husband placed his hand on my breast and I reacted by pushing his hand away... I did not feel comfortable and I felt incomplete.

My husband reassured me that his feelings for me had not changed and he still finds me attractive. The fact that I was ok was the most important thing to him...so we decided to take it one day at a time just like when we first met. Bedroom basic’s had to take a back seat. Media depicts sexiness as… thin, long lustrous hair, big boobs and bums so getting back into this made me weary and nervous. Despite having being married and loved by this wondrous man I had doubts whether I was still attractive to him…. Would he still find me alluring? It is like your first time all over again... learning to trust and give yourself back into this part of the relationship

My husband and I have an understanding, that we accept each other as is... one boob, scars, mood swings with French fries and salads... My point is that women will do anything to make ourselves prettier, fake nails, hair, make up etc. but this is where I drew the line. Reconstructive surgery is not a guarantee that everything will be picture perfect. To this day I decline when I get asked if I would consider reconstruction as I want my children to grow up knowing that life isn’t just about our physical appearance but what makes us comfortable and our hearts smile.

As a Hindu I love wearing saris. My confidence had withered and I wondered how I would look in a sari with no hair and just one boob. I had to make do with Punjabi’s (dress with pants) with a scarf to tie up my bald head. Once my hair grew back I started to wearing a sari but still with uncertainty. My blouses had to be less stylish and had to altered to hold my fake boob but I am slowly gaining my confidence back and starting to see myself as a sensual whole woman.

Prior to my trauma, I was a well organized, prim and proper, super-efficient multi-tasker. One of the chemo’s administered to me was nick named red devil, and the one that did most of the damage to the body. After my first cycle of chemo, I noticed that I had become absent minded, leaving stove on, the iron, could not remember what was kept where. I spoke to family about and we just put it down to dealing with the shock of this dreaded disease but on one of my visits to the doctor I asked her about this... She realized that she had forgotten to mention that memory loss was one of the side effects of the red devil. This is known as “Chemo Brain”.

It’s like you’re five years old again, can’t remember simple things. The ideas will be in my head, but my brain can’t register it fast enough for me to say or do. “Why me?”…was the question I asked myself!... and then remembered a conversation my sister and I had long before I was diagnosed. My son had been hospitalised three times with TB before and I remembered saying, “I hope that my husband and kids do not suffer anymore… if God has anymore hurdles to throw in our way, let it be me that has to take the pain”…..little did I realize that these words would later renew my FAITH! As a devout Hindu, (daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, wife, mother, and all the other hats that I wear) we followed every religious fast, ritual, prayer suggested to us by parents, priests or elderly relatives and we obediently complied. During my ordeal the fasting’s and rituals intensified so much so that I lost all self-control and lashed out vehemently. Everyone around would say “don’t worry, after this prayer/ritual/fast everything will be ok”.

I yelled back, “How do you know?... For all my devotion and loyalty this is how God repays me??? Leave me alone... I just don’t believe there’s a God anymore.” My faith in “My God” suffered a massive thunderstorm. My religion is my ship, the seas’ are my days (good and bad)…. God was the captain and I was just thrown overboard without a life jacket and didn’t know how to swim... I was DROWNING! Getting up each day and seeing my family gave me the courage to at least reach out for driftwood and float... Day by day I grew stronger, but was too stubborn to pray. One day, at the oncology centre, the nurses couldn’t get the needle into my vein and I cried out in pain, “Oh God, I would die if either of my children had to feel this”. In that second I recalled “my conversation with God” to throw any pain my way instead of my family. That’s the day I learnt to swim. When I got home, I went straight to my prayer altar at home and cried.

“Forgive me almighty, I lost you, lost my path, and thank you guiding me back to you”. That’s is when I pulled myself together… put my head up and said, “Cancer, here I am…you will not get the better of me or my family”. From there I drew the courage and determination to fight this horrid illness. This experience has given me a voice that was suppressed for too long. I am no longer a puppet dancing to other people’s tunes. I stand firmly for what I feel is correct and what makes me happy. I believe that I deserve love and respect as much as I give it. My faith in my GOD has been reaffirmed. I am glad that this has happened to me and not to my children. There is one quote that will always stay with me. “Don’t wait for someone to bring you flowers. Rather spend the time planting your own garden” We all work so hard for luxuries but little do we realize that we need to open our eyes and take delight in what we already have, “the free stuff”.

I chauffeur my children to and from school but here was one day in particular, a rainy day, that I pitched up at school with just an umbrella. They just stood there, gaping at me. “What? Are u mad? You want us to walk home in the Rain? Have you lost your marbles, Ma?” “Yes, I replied. Now shut up and start walking”. Now that was a priceless moment. Three of us, one umbrella with the wind and rain. Now that was something they just couldn’t get enough of. Now they wait for the rain.

Without rain you cannot make a rainbow. So I have learnt to take the good with the bad and just live. Nobody can predict the future but at least we have the ability to make the present time on this earth beautiful. I have learnt to stop living my life by asking “WHAT IF” but rather “WHY NOT”. So what if it rains, go out and dance in it, you will only get wet not melt. Lie down on the grass and gaze at the stars before the clouds close them. My advice to others is that BALANCE is the key to life. Live, laugh and be merry but be responsible enough to look after your health and your loved ones. To me Life is a road trip and CANCER was just a speed bump.

Shalom Mkhize


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