On March 15 at 7.05pm, I sent my wife Sapna a screenshot of the medical report I had received. Her response: "What the f**k."
The day had gone by rather smoothly.
My request for a documentary profiling the Indian Air Force's (IAF) Garud commandos had been approved. Thus I spent the day at Chandinagar, an air force base in Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat district, lost in what unfolded before my eyes.
Later in the day, a call I missed from the hospital reminded me of the unfinished agenda.
The lady at the other end wouldn't tell. She'd rather email.
When she did, we had an explanation for a lump on the left-hand side of my neck which ordinary medication couldn't shake off. I'd read up and suggested to my doctor the worst-case scenario only to be chided for "over-enthusiasm". However, my guess turned out correct. Mine was a case of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, they ruled.
At Sapna's reply, I smiled. On my forehead was cold sweat. The mind was agitated. And there still was work left for the day.
After realising that this no longer was a nightmare from which I would wake up to a "normal day", I wrote in my diary:
"We will deal with this and deal with this well. There is one thing I promise now - my zest, my love and my humanity is only going to grow stronger. And I swear to whomsoever it may concern, that I am going to beat the shit out of this. Cheers!"
Over the next few days, we worked with doctors to understand the full picture. It was heartening to see my organisation standing by me. The leadership granted me concessions I had not granted myself.
Of everyone, I was most nervous about informing my mother. Living on her own in Mumbai, I did not want her alone and worried at the same time. But her response, when I informed her in person, left me relieved.
I ate the right food and stayed away from infections.
As television journalists, our acquaintances see us even if we don't see them. It also is our job to stay in touch with as many as possible. This ailment forced upon me a hiatus from which I did not know when I would emerge. Some who were concerned began asking why they weren't seeing me. Every time someone asked about my health, I told them the truth. People offered assistance, advice, personal stories or simply their best wishes. That so many felt so strongly was almost therapeutic.
I was also lucky in that I did not suffer a single symptom associated with my ailment. The disease was at an early stage of its existence revealed the tests and consultations.
A slower but testing experience was to begin.
By the middle of April, I embarked on six cycles of chemotherapy under the soft-spoken and tireless Dr Dinesh Bhurani of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre in the capital. Those undergoing chemotherapy are warned about multiple side effects which include but are not limited to pain, sleeplessness, mood swings and nausea. For me, it was a period of observing the resilience of one's body and mind. I was impressed how well my body faced up to regular doses of controlled and targeted toxicity. There was discomfort yet it never got quite as bad. It also was a period of seeing oneself in a new light quite literally as chemotherapy took most of my hair away.
With time on hand, I read, wrote, saw and learnt as much as I could. Sleeping without an alarm and meditating daily helped restore my health.
News about cancer fatalities broke my heart. They also filled me with fear. The words "what if" never really left my side. In many ways, struggling with cancer is akin to climbing a difficult mountain. Sad as it may sound, not everyone who begins necessarily completes it. I came across many whose situation wasn't as comfortable as mine. I hope they experience a turnaround soon.
Fortunately by the middle of September, scans could no longer find cancerous cells in my body.
This would not have been possible without the person I, even before my cancer, referred to as my 'Rock', my wife. If one moment she was my loving companion, the next she could be a cop knocking sense into me. She went to maddening lengths so that I ate the right food and stayed away from infections. All of it came at a price - her stress levels were peaking and it showed. I've promised to not make her worry about my health. Also, being a far better writer than yours truly, she has penned a perceptive (and shorter) piece on this experience which I'd urge you to read.
Cancer can make one's knees buckle, to begin with that is. It's a dreadful disease but one from which we are at a safe distance or so we all would like to believe. Cancers associated with habits aside, the disease can affect anyone. After all, it is a cell which goes rogue and increases its tribe. Having said that, I must add that cancer is weak in its early days. It is made weaker by a spirit that is both, happy and strong.
Why did it happen to me?
Science does not offer an explanation. But the fundamentals for a healthy and stable existence were not in place in my case.
Forget others, I used be extremely harsh on myself. No matter what one did or achieved, I'd always be unhappy, dissatisfied. In seeking more and better (not your healthy, motivated way, mind you), in punishing myself, I stand guilty of having caused my mind and body immense and undue stress. As someone who believed that life is all and only about work, I used to look down upon the very thought of sleeping beyond five hours a day. While I did find time to exercise but my eating habits and what they call "work-life balance" consistently left a lot to be desired.
While stress is common, its impact on individuals is not.
My journey, for what it's worth, has made me realise that our body and spirit have in them the keys to our wellness. We only need to cultivate the right environment.
Cancer came to me as a pause. Thankfully in leaving, it gave me the opportunity to reset.