Her will to survive: 'I am tougher than my cancer'

There were good and bad days but Anita kept her focus on all the things she would like to do and the places she'd like to go when she was better. And that kept her going. Photos: ANITA LAL

The news that she had Stage 3 breast cancer came as a shock to Anita Lal.

“No one in my family has had breast cancer and so hearing the diagnosis was really quite devastating. I never thought it would happen to me because I have always been active and lead quite a healthy lifestyle,” she shares.

Anita first discovered a lump in her left breast in December 2019. But when she had it checked she was told that it was non-malignant, a cyst that would go away.

“The lump pretty much stayed the same until June or July last year, which was when I noticed it getting bigger. I got a bit panicky and got tested again in September last year. This time, the results showed that it was malignant and I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer,” says Anita, 47.

She needed to start treatment straight away and after weighing several treatment options from her doctor, Lal opted to go for chemotherapy first (to shrink the cancer), followed by a lumpectomy.

“I was hoping to just do a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. So after six cycles of chemotherapy, the doctor said that the tumour was shrinking, which was good news. They performed a lumpectomy and also took cells from areas around my breast. Unfortunately, the tests showed that the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes and skin. So I removed my lymph nodes and a week later, removed my left breast,” she says.

This was followed by 15 cycles of radiotherapy over three weeks.

Keeping positive was key to Anita's recovery. She told herself that she was tougher that cancer and is happy to say that though not yet in remission, there are no cancer cells in her system. Keeping positive was key to Anita's recovery. She told herself that she was tougher that cancer and is happy to say that though not yet in remission, there are no cancer cells in her system.

Because of the pandemic, Anita had to go through all her treatments and hospital stays on her own, which was tough.

“I didn’t feel anxious going for treatments during the pandemic because I knew that this was something I had to do or I’d lose my life. But because of the lockdowns (and pandemic protocols), I couldn’t have anyone with me in the hospital which was hard. It would have been nice to have my family or fiance hold my hand after surgery but it just wasn’t possible because of the situation. Thankfully the nurses were fantastic and my doctors were incredible,” she says.

Anita had a scare though one time when she went in for one of her chemotherapy sessions.

“I had to have my blood count done before each chemotherapy session and once, my count was zero. They rushed me to an isolation ward where I was by myself, for a week. I was really weak and had a temperature and I thought I had Covid-19. But it wasn’t Covid-19; I was in isolation really just for my own protection. My immunity was so low that even if someone coughed near me, I was at risk of getting really ill,” she says.

And as if cancer wasn’t devastating enough, Anita’s parents were diagnosed with Covid-19 earlier this year and her dad, succumbed to the illness, she shares.

“Both my mum and dad were tested positive for Covid-19. At first they were both fine and had to just quarantine at home in Klang where they live. But my dad started getting ill and they had to rush him to the hospital. Shortly after, he passed away. It was really sudden and tragic. I could only speak to him the day before he passed away. I never got a chance to speak to him again and my mum couldn’t be there either as she was positive and quarantined at home too. So it was really quite a nightmare.

“I guess I have to take the good with the bad. I am glad he didn’t have to go through illness for a long time and that he went peacefully.

“A week after his death, I found out that there were no more cancer cells in my body and I’m sure he is proud of me,” says Anita.

“I only recently got to see my mum and put my arms around her. I stayed with her in Klang for a few days and that was nice,” she says.

Good days, bad days

Once she recovered from the shock of her diagnosis, Anita was determined to face her treatment with a positive attitude.

“I think the most important thing for me was the self-belief that I was going to get better. At no point did I think that cancer was going to kill me. Even now, I am not scared of it and if it and if it comes back, I’ll face it again.

“That’s the sort of person I am, I guess. I’m not being complacent or taking anything for granted but I believe that I can get through this. I focused on what I was going to do and the places I wanted to go to once I got better which also helped,” says Anita.

She also learnt to listen to her body and follow what it needed.

“I learnt to ride out the bad days and look forward to the good ones. Some days felt I like I could conquer the world but some days I just stayed in bed. Even then, I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d feel good again and looked forward to that,” she says.

Support from family and friends was another thing that helped her through the bad days.

“Support is really important. When I was first diagnosed, the oncologist told me not to keep it from my loved ones and friends. She said that I may think I can go through it alone but that I will need support.

“I took her advice and I told every one of my friends about my diagnosis and they’ve been amazing, offering to bring me food, help me clean my place, or just hang out – mostly on zoom because of the lockdowns.

“My family too, of course, have been there for me. And my fiance too, he took me for all my chemotherapy sessions even though he couldn’t come in with me, and gave me massages because the body aches from chemotherapy are not like any ache I’ve ever experienced,” says Anita.

Although going through cancer is overwhelming, Anita says keeping her sights on what she would do when she got better helped her cope.

“I think its important to have that mentality. Chemotherapy was tough. Losing my hair wasn’t so traumatic for me because i know it will grow back but the severe body aches, losing my taste buds – everything had a metallic taste to it, all the drugs, being in bed for days, feeling awful... they all come at you at once and it’s easy to feel depressed.

“But I kept telling myself that cancer is not getting the better of me. I’m in pain but it’s because my body is fighting so hard. I’ve got a newfound respect for my body for its amazing ability to fight. Looking back, I really don’t remember the pain. I can talk about it but I don’t feel it anymore,” she says.

It could happen to anyone

Anita's advice to women is to check their breasts and get a mammogram, especially if they are above 40.

“It’s just a few seconds of discomfort but if the cancer is caught early, you can get help fast and you won’t have to go through all the chemotherapy or surgery like me.

“Don’t take it for granted, thinking that it won’t happen to you. Though I was diagnosed at Stage 3, I consider myself lucky that my cancer was still treatable. Don’t let the pandemic stop you because it’s really safe and there are more precautions now if anything,” she says.

For now, Anita is happy to report that there are no cancer cells in her body. She’s not going to be complacent though as she is aware there is a possibility of a recurrence.

“I am not yet in remission... I’ll have to wait a couple of years before I can be in remission. My doctor told me that if I feel back aches or pain in my pelvis area to rush right in to get checked as there is a possibility of the cancer spreading to my bones.

“But I’m not going to let fear rule my life,” she says.

Plus, she’s got exciting plans to look forward to.

“We’re planning on getting married next year and I want it to be a big party, a real celebration. That’s really exciting,” she says, a big smile on her face.

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