By Anita Panda
Is life as beautiful as the fresh little dew,
That glides over the juvenile, naked leaf?
Or is it as gruesome as the marauding cells,
Briefly halted by the surgeon’s cold steel?
Fight, O’ brave one, fight!
How do you react when you first see your childhood pal, best friend and mentor lying on his hospital bed? Images of my playmate, older sibling and partner-in-crime of the past flashed like a cinematic reel before my dazed eyes. That precious string of love I used to tie on his wrist each Rakshabandhan to cement our sibling bonding and extract my ‘gift’ from him triggered nostalgia.
For a few seconds, my breath almost stopped. My head reeled and my world went blank. A lump arose in my throat and my senses went numb as I fought hard my raw emotions and struggled to make sense of the brutal reality that had hit us. A rude jolt blazed through my veins like an electric shock: denial, grief, anger, helplessness, all sweeping me away like a raging tsunami.
When the reality sank in, I was stumped. And transformed.
It was October 30, 2018, when I received the news that my brother, Colonel Surya Panda, an engineer in the Indian Army, had been diagnosed with a tumour in his salivary gland. Tests at a Mumbai hospital confirmed that it was malignant melanoma, a rare, aggressive skin cancer.
At 54, Surya was studying management at the Noida branch of IIM Lucknow to increase and enhance his post-retirement employability. His course was now rudely interrupted. The family celebrated Diwali with a puja at home as always, before he entered the operation theatre for his challenging war with the lethal ‘C’.
Overnight, I slipped into the role of a protective and proactive elder sister from the vulnerable younger sibling. Buddhism, Reiki healing, praying, chanting and learning to practice complete surrender to God consumed my days.
I began to study this rare cancer, its causes, symptoms, treatment and survival rate. I found that its annual incidence is 0.4 of 1 case per 100,000 people. What gave me hope was the knowledge that about 72 per cent of those struck with this type of cancer survive five years or more post diagnosis. Surgery is the main treatment used by doctors in such cases.
My brother’s brave wife Rina had faced daunting challenges before as an Army wife. But this was another kind of acid test for her too. There was no time to grieve. From the time she noticed the lump behind her husband’s right ear through the numerous medical consultations to handling his hectic IIM schedule and their young kids, she fought to stay positive and unfazed.
“I could understand the complexity of the surgery,” she says. Even so, she could not help the ‘rude shudder’ she felt when her husband handed over a small black diary with details of their financial assets before his surgery, briefing her on things to do should anything go wrong.
The date of the surgery, November 13, was our test of true faith, in both science and spirituality. While doctors put their skills to use, I prayed feverishly in my Mumbai home, while simultaneously having a Mahamrityunjay puja done for him a Sai Shani temple. Our parents and elder brothers prayed similarly at their ancestral village in Kumbharbandh in faraway Odisha.
The wait seemed endless for the stoic Rina, with her daughter Adya as her sole companion in the waiting room of the Army hospital. Finally, the six-hour surgery was pronounced a success. “It was a priceless moment,” she recalled, when Surya responded as she softly called his name in the post-op room. She instantly messaged family and friends for vital updates on his health. It was ‘Operation Vijay’ for the first round of this sinister battle!
What followed were six long weeks of painful radiotherapy to his neck, another surgery on his scalp and the year-long immunotherapy, with 26 infusions administered once every two weeks. It is painful for Rina to watch her husband suffer the aggressive side-effects – nausea, fatigue, headaches, skin rashes, inability to swallow – but she has fought the battle valiantly taking on the additional burdens and his utmost care.
She was proudest when Surya notched yet another victory to complete his management course successfully a month after his surgery. As he went up the dais to deliver a short speech amidst thunderous applause, she felt as if she had bagged the certificate.
When I met my brother after his surgery, it was an emotional reunion. A surge of relief, joy and gratitude swept through me as I gazed at him. He had lost weight and looked gaunt but was calm as usual and smiled at me. That’s when I noticed his slightly skewed right lower lip despite escaping facial palsy. My eyes glistened with unshed tears just to see him alive!
It wasn’t the first time I had felt this way. We had all felt the tremors of operational challenges that my brother had faced – from counter-insurgency in the icy Kargil heights and the highest battlefield in the world at Siachen glacier to the scorching desert dunes of Thar. From the beautiful, bloody woods in Jammu & Kashmir to the humid, virgin jungles of the Northeast, each time my brother left for battle, I had prayed for his safety and victory.
But this nine-month battle was an exceptional and invisible one, fighting an ominous enemy lurking within and devouring his cells. I look at his situation as “a huge learning in pain management” in his words and at this battle as a graceful acceptance of his ailment and the mental tenacity to deal with it honed by military training.
For me, this has been a deeply spiritual and emotional journey. Of becoming one with the divine consciousness. Of complete surrender to a higher force and deep faith into an inward journey, to discover my inner strength and face adversity with calmness and patience. To be positive despite the challenge and have the will to ‘never-say-die’.
This has been a profound journey of learning and faith for a sister to view her brother’s eventful life as “a story still unfolding”. I am reminded of the lines from a rousing poem our father often recited to us: Forward the Light brigade! …stormed at with shot and shell …they that had fought so well.
My brother has fought well and invincibly. Fight on, Surya. Soldiers never die!
TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS OF CANCER PATIENTS:
EDUCATE yourself about your loved one’s cancer type, treatment options and potential side-effects.
PRIORITIZE daily tasks and space out activities with short rest periods. Postpone small jobs.
Be ORGANIZED with a record of their medical history, test results, medications, appointments, physician names etc.
ACCEPT help with sharing your burdens, responsibilities, financial aid, and contact your hospital social worker.
KEEP a journal of your emotions to release your thoughts and feelings to better manage them.
MAKE them BELIEVE life is beautiful and worth living every single moment.
CREATE a lively, positive and energising home atmosphere to minimise stress in their lives.
PROVIDE counselling and emotional support especially during their ‘bad’ days and moments of emotional mood swings, depression and frustration.
TAKE care of their physical needs and comfort.
COOK fresh and nutritious meals at home and avoid all processed food.
TAKE CARE of their income, medical and health Insurance needs.
Source: THE NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE