“I am not a survivor, I am a conqueror,’ says Neerja Malik, as she laughs her hearty, gregarious laugh. If there is one thing that will strike you about this lady, it is her larger-than-life persona and the zest and passion she has for living.
“Let’s start at the very beginning,” I said to her, and as if on cue, she began speaking. There is a certain lilt in her voice that can put to rest any troubled mind. Her story isn’t a fairy tale but it is a tale that must be told.
It was way back in February 1998 that Neerja found the first pea-sized lump in her left breast.
As she narrates her story from back then, I cannot help but wonder where she gets the courage to speak so openly. “I was on auto-pilot after being diagnosed. I wasn’t thinking of anything. I knew there would be a surgery, then chemotherapy, followed by radiation. I had met all the doctors and was all set. On the way back home from the hospital I realised I had two lunch meets to attend over the weekend.”
“My husband, Mandeep, called one of our friends from the car and said that lunch would have to cancelled as I was diagnosed with cancer,” she continues. “I hit his shoulder the minute he finished the call and that was when the enormity of it all hit me. I sat there and wept my heart out. By the time I came home I had had a jolly good weep and was in a position to call the second person and cancel lunch on my own.”
That wasn’t the first time Neerja had to face a crisis situation. Life has thrown any and everything possible at her – few miscarriages, a still-born, having her uterus removed, and then having to deal with the disease that everyone fears – cancer. And yet when you speak with her, you feel only positive energy.
Just when she thought that life was on track after successfully surviving five years cancer-free, it struck again in 2004. This time in the right breast.
Fighting cancer once makes you a survivor, fighting it twice makes you a conqueror.
The story of how she dealt with it makes it all sound like a breeze. “Since my kids were very young (all of 7 years) when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time I would constantly be making up stories to cover for my being away.”
Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is an idiom, which she truly lives by. She laughs as she narrates an incident. “The initial few days after chemotherapy are awful. All I did was puke. There was a time when my husband saw me throwing up a worm. The following day the same thing happened in another bathroom. Instead of worrying and brooding about it, I imagined how the two worms would meet in the drainage pipe, become Mr. and Mrs. Worm, and live happily ever after.”
“The second time you were diagnosed with cancer must have been a blow,” I ask. “It was tough. While I knew the drill, the treatment the second time around was far more aggressive leaving me completely drained of energy.” That, however, did not stop her from planning a family get-together at Fish-Cove in Chennai.
“That is what kept me going then,” she says. “I didn’t tell my kids that I would have to go through surgery again since they had their final exams coming up. In fact, a day before the surgery when the nurse handed me a sedative to help me sleep through the night, I refused. I had to stay awake so I could wake my daughter up at 2:30 a.m. to study.”
While her daughter understood the situation, she mentioned how it took a very long time for her son to come to terms with it all. His anger stemmed from the fact that she hid it from them.
Losing hair due to chemotherapy is one of the biggest battles that women face. Once, after an intense treatment session, when Neerja was getting ready to go someplace, she noticed a clump of hair fall off. “To make light of the situation I remember standing in my balcony, plucking it out one by one and blowing it into the air. All the while saying to myself – he loves me, he loves me not.”
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Today, Neerja counsels cancer patients and their families. She was instrumental in setting up the counseling unit at Apollo Hospitals. Having gone through cancer and the treatment she has the ability to connect with those who are going through the same. A junior doctor at the hospital once said, “Neerja Malik has gone into places in this hospital where even the air hasn’t.”
She tells her patients to call her at any time of the day or night. “I am available 24/7. Sometimes I can even talk in my sleep, putting the other person completely at ease. This is what keeps me going.”
“Everytime I am able to see a glimmer of a smile or a hope or twinkling eyes, that gives me a high. It makes me feel grateful to God for having given me the chance to do this.” She truly is an inspiration.
“Cancer is merely a word,” she says as we end the interview.