It was just by chance that Renuka Prasad discovered a pea-sized lump in her breast in 1997. After ignoring it for a couple of days, she consulted a local gynaecologist in Bhatinda, Punjab, where her husband, an army Corp Commander, was posted. She was reassured when the doctor told her that the mammogram showed fatty tissues probably due to hormonal changes in her body – at 49, she was approaching menopause.
However, it was while discussing this with her daughter during a visit to London a couple of months later that she realised the lump had grown larger. It had become the size of a kidney bean. Now she was worried.
So after her return to India, when her husband came on an official visit to Delhi, she consulted specialists at the army hospital in the Capital. Although a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy showed fatty cells, Renuka’s relief was short-lived. When doctors conducted a stereotactic core biopsy – a more advanced step – to understand the nature of the growing lump, the results brought Renuka’s world crashing down.
Renuka, now 64, remembers that moment well, “Fifteen years ago when that first diagnosis was made, I was shocked. Why me was the first question that came to my mind. I was a religious-minded person, exercised regularly, didn’t smoke or drink and had no genetic history of cancer. I was in complete denial and didn’t want to accept that I had the disease.”
But being an army wife, she didn’t buckle under the stress. “Once I accepted it, I didn’t waste any more time. Although the cancer was discovered at the first stage, I went in for a mastectomy when doctors suggested removal of the breast because of the position of the lump,” she reveals.
However, when the harsh reality of losing one breast sank in after the surgery, Renuka’s courage took a hit. “I was really depressed and just did not know how to face the world with no hair and with one breast gone. Fortunately, I had the constant support of my husband and children, a sensitive surgeon and an empathetic medical oncologist.”
The doctors arranged a visit from the Cancer Sahyog, a support group for cancer survivors. When the lady explained that not only would Renuka’s hair grow back soon, she would be able to resume her hectic social life with prosthesis – a ‘special bra’ – just as she had done, her confidence returned.
But the best medicine was yet to come. Over the next couple of days after her surgery, friends and relatives decided to use the opportunity to fix a marriage alliance for her son. “Both my children had come down from London to be by my side. Being an eligible bachelor, relatives and friends would bring their daughters to the hospital to meet my son. The best part was that my son actually proposed to one of them and it was decided to have the engagement ceremony before he returned to the UK. Everything had to be done within eight days. I went to buy the ring with the hospital drips still taped to my body. The shopkeepers must have thought I was mad,” reminisces Renuka, wearing a broad smile.
In fact, the future bride’s family even suggested that the ceremony be held in the hospital itself because of her ongoing treatment, but Renuka turned down the offer saying that she was not on her deathbed and could attend the ceremony after she left the hospital. “It was so much fun. I think it was that event which kept me going during those days in hospital, especially after the rounds of chemotherapy, which were very debilitating. The marriage was held five months later,” she recalls.
Acceptance of the changes in the body after surgery is half the battle won, contends Renuka. “Wearing the special prosthetic bra was the first step in accepting myself as I was. I wanted other women to also benefit and was happy when the Army Wives Welfare Association agreed to give the silicon prosthesis and special bra to cancer patients in army hospitals. When the concerned general heard about it, he went a step further by ordering the hospital to do it since it costs around Rs 7,000. Today, all cancer patients at the army hospital who have lost a breast get it,” elaborates Renuka.
It was while undergoing reiki – a de-stressing therapy first practiced in Japan – that Renuka realised the importance of alternative healing treatments. So after recovery, while she continued raising awareness about breast cancer as part of the Indian Cancer Society’s activities, she began exploring the idea of setting up a healing centre. That was how Prashanti (meaning supreme peace) came about in Delhi. It is a healing centre which besides offering psycho-social support, complementary therapies, and breast cancer rehabilitation, conducts workshops and other outreach events. The first of its kind in the country, it is a unit of the Indian Cancer Society and offers all its programmes free of cost.
As joint secretary of the Indian Cancer Society, Renuka realises that what the majority of cancer patients need is emotional support. “We have trained counsellors to talk to the patients and have provided a space where they can share their experiences. We also provide home-cooked meals and clothing for patients, many of whom are from rural areas,” she adds.
Her own brush with cancer has made Renuka not just stronger by wiser. Today, she is actively involved in raising awareness about breast cancer and realises that the lack of attention Indian women pay to their bodies has often led them to pay a heavy price in terms of their general well-being.
She observes, “We find that women still deprive themselves of adequate nutrition. They won’t eat fruits, for instance, in order to feed them to other family members. It’s time they realised that their health is equally important and that often only good care and prompt treatment can save their lives.”