Young cancer survivor lives life to the fullest


Navi, in hospital for targeted chemotherapy in Aug 2020 - believes in living life to the fullest. Photo: Dinesh Pushparani

If you were to meet Navi Indran Pillai in person, you probably wouldn’t believe that she is a breast cancer survivor or that she is still undergoing treatment. She resonates with joy and the kind of optimism not usually associated with one going through a serious illness.

Navi, who turns 30 on Oct 9, is still going through targeted chemotherapy – a maintenance drug for cancer patients who are in remission, and it is a lifetime thing. She goes for treatments every three weeks and each session lasts about seven hours.

This is the second time she has had cancer (since diagnosis in 2018) and she is still going through the treatments. She first had it when she was only 22.

Her 20s were spent going through treatments and dealing with the side effects of cancer. Photo: Navi Indran PillaiHer 20s were spent going through treatments and dealing with the side effects of cancer. Photo: Navi Indran Pillai

Read more: 'Cancer taught me to love life': Navi Indran inspires others through Instagram

“It’s not easy having to go to the hospital to get IV’ed every three weeks for the rest of my life. Also, to come out tired, lethargic with aches and joint pains which takes me about one week to get over,” she says.

But the most devastating side effect, Navi reveals, is from the hormonal therapy. She may be 30, but she has already menopaused because of this.

“I was devastated, because I’m young, and it’s like taking my youth away. But I’ve come to realise, it doesn’t matter if you know how to enjoy your life, keep healthy and stay fit,” she shares.

Navi with her hair grown back in Sept 2020. Photo: Navi Indran PillaiNavi with her hair grown back in Sept 2020. Photo: Navi Indran PillaiWhat is having cancer like?

“It’s an indescribable pain. It’s a very different kind of headache, not the regular kind you get from watching TV too long, reading in the dark, straining of your eyes or migraines.

“This is a spiking headache. Then, there is nausea - wanting to puke but nothing comes out - diarrhea, having absolutely no energy whatsoever, and not being able to taste food,” she describes.

But, these are just the side effects of the treatment, Navi reveals. In fact, the treatment is far worse than the cancer itself because it kills both the good and bad cells in the body.

Despite having gone through all this, Navi chooses to remain positive.

In fact, if you visit her Instagram profile, you might come across images of her “enjoying a glass or two of wine”, visiting interesting places, dancing and living her life just like any other young woman.

“Sometimes, I would post a photo of myself drinking a glass of wine to show that you can still enjoy life despite cancer. I also try to share food photos. But at the same time, I still do my workouts, so there is balance,” she shares.

“Cancer doesn’t mean the end of life. Having cancer doesn’t mean that I’m going to die within the next few months. And just because someone is healthy, it doesn’t mean that they will live for many more years. Life is uncertain so we need to appreciate and be grateful for the time we have,” she says.

Navi, pictured with a rescued dog, volunteers at several  animal shelters. Photo: Navi Indran PillaiNavi, pictured with a rescued dog, volunteers at several animal shelters. Photo: Navi Indran Pillai

Busting the cancer myth

There are many misconceptions that people have about cancer.

Navi, who works with the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM, since April 2019) as a volunteer coordinator, reveals that she discovered this in the course of her job.

“I learnt many things as a cancer survivor when I joined NCSM and I often share what I’ve learnt on social media,” she says.

She then reveals that she doesn’t have any strict dietary requirements, and that it is one of the misconceptions about cancer.

Being positive about life - Navi at the hospital for targeted chemotherapy in Aug 2020. Photo: Dhanisha GanaseBeing positive about life - Navi at the hospital for targeted chemotherapy in Aug 2020. Photo: Dhanisha Ganase“Just because you have cancer, it doesn’t mean you can’t take certain food, and just because you don’t have cancer, it doesn’t mean you can take those foods. Everyone - whether they have cancer or not - should have a healthy and balanced eating plan they abide by,” she says.

“People often think that having cancer means death, but that’s not necessarily so.

People also think cancer only impacts the elderly, but I had it when I was very young,” she adds.

She feels that it is important to bust these myths which are often propagated through social networking apps like WhatsApp or posted on social media such as Facebook.

Instead, she uses social media to tell people about the realities of cancer.

“Being on social media (Instagram) helps me to share my journey with others, without them having to go through the same pain and suffering,” she says.

From the day she was first diagnosed, to the first day of chemo, the loss of her hair and its regrowth, her dancing and gymming, and all the different aspects of her life, her followers can “experience the reality of what having cancer is like”.

For Navi, doing what she loves – Indian classical dance and gym – helps get her through the difficult times.

“Belief in yourself, believing in faith, in God – no matter what your religion – is also a means of support, and is important for cancer patients and survivors, as well as caregivers,” says Navi, who is Hindu.

Pandemic times

Navi admits going through the pandemic was initially difficult.

“The first two months, I had to stop my treatments because we were all so afraid of going out (to the hospital) and catching Covid-19.

“But I believe if we take precautions like social distancing, masking, washing hands and sanitising, we can still go for our treatments. Hospitals have implemented the required SOPs and allowed cancer patients to return for treatments,” she says.

Navi, who is single, dresses up as a bride for a photoshoot in Feb 2019 when she has lost all her hair due to chemotherapy. Photo: Celes GerardNavi, who is single, dresses up as a bride for a photoshoot in Feb 2019 when she has lost all her hair due to chemotherapy. Photo: Celes GerardAlthough this hasn’t been a good year for many because of the pandemic, Navi manages to see things in a positive light.

"The MCO gave me time to do all the things I wanted to do: I cleaned up my closet and did up my room, I read books and watched many TV series, I got to understand myself better,” she says.

She admits all the treatments also take a toll on her financially and she recently did a dance recital to raise funds for her treatments.

She hopes to celebrate her milestone birthday in a special way.

“I’m turning 30 and this is special to me because almost all of my 20s, I’ve been battling this illness - from not knowing if I’m going to live, to living and being able to step into the new decade. It’s something I’m really grateful for and excited about,” she exuberates.

She reveals that she wrote to Telekom Malaysia, requesting that they light up the KL Tower pink to honour all breast cancer survivors.

“I don’t know if they’ll grant my request, but I want to tell people my story, that there is hope after cancer, and more importantly, how I’m celebrating my birthday with my loved ones,” she says.

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