My name is Shruti. I’m an Indian American woman living in Austin, and at 38 I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.
I was taking a shower on a Sunday night when I just happened to feel something that felt like a small, hard rock on my left breast. That it could be breast cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I showed it to my husband, and sent a lighthearted text to a friend who is a practicing OBGYN to see if she could fit me into her schedule. I was seen the next morning, and as she ran tests and ordered the mammogram, she reassured me that I most likely had nothing to worry about – I thought so, too. I went for the mammogram, and the biopsy that followed, convinced that it was just a matter of following the doctor’s orders and taking all necessary precautions.
This just so happened to come up a few days before a family event, so my husband and I packed up with our two girls and left town. We were all together enjoying the festivities with my family, when I got the call. My friend, the OBGYN, asked if I had somewhere quiet to go so we could speak. She said, “I’m sorry Shruti, but your results were positive.” I was shocked. My first thought was, “You’ve got the wrong person.” I strode back into the room, told my family, and we packed back up and got on the first flight back home, where I drove straight from the airport to the breast surgeon. It wasn’t until I met with my oncologist that I had the courage to ask the question that hadn’t relented since I first got the news. “Am I going to die?” He smiled back at me with the biggest and most reassuring smile I’d ever seen as he simply said, “No way.”
From that point on I decided that it was an opportunity like no other to live my very best life. My husband and I booked a last minute trip, and took our girls to Disney World – and then returned home, ready to get to work. I bought fun, colorful wigs to wear to my chemo appointments. A thoughtful friend of mine set up a chemo calendar, and sent it out to all my friends and family. Within minutes, 16 different appointments were filled with16 different names, and I had all the company I could ask for.
But not long after I started chemo, I got another unexpected phone call – this time, it was a friend of my father’s, someone I’d never met, informing me that my father was in the hospital … in India. There was nothing I could do. With a compromised immune system due to the chemo, getting on a plane was out of the question. My siblings went in my place, but before they could make it to the hospital, he had passed.
That same day, my hair began to fall out.
In India, it’s a symbolic gesture – when someone dies, the men of the household all shave their heads. That day, I sat in a salon chair surrounded by my family, and we all shaved my head together. I still can’t think of a more appropriate way to have honored my own grief.
My surgeon recommended a double mastectomy, and as I was preparing, another surprise came my way. My genetic test came back positive. Indian culture is secretive, and it’s not unusual for a family member to hide news about their poor health out of shame – so I began to ask around, and was surprised to learn that my aunt had also had breast cancer.
I started the next chapter of my recovery determined to stay positive, but it was tough – I had opted for DIEP flap reconstruction, which both requires a longer recovery time as well as more determination and fortitude. As I prepared for my surgery, I went to the BCRC office to discuss how to prepare for my surgery and to pick up a post mastectomy garment. My Patient Navigator gave me helpful tips for recovery and I walked out of the office with a shirt to help hold my drains and pillows to aid in my recovery.
I had felt so strong, loved and cared for along the way, but what I didn’t expect was how I felt once my treatment was considered complete. I knew that it had made a difference for me – but what I hadn’t expected was how dramatic the shift would feel when everyone that had surrounded me went back to their own lives. But that’s when I decided that the brain is an organ like anything else in your body – and sometimes your brain needs help, too. That’s where a therapist comes in. I found an Indian therapist, someone who could understand the stigmas an Indian woman faces while healing both physically and emotionally. In that process, I found that writing and sharing my story was powerfully cathartic. We heal with each other’s help, and we all need to be reminded that we’re not alone.
Get your mammograms, do your self-exams, go to your regular doctor’s appointments. Tend to your health carefully! You are important and precious.
If you or someone you know is facing breast cancer and could use our support, please visit our website or call our helpline at 512-524-2560.
Consider making a donation to BCRC and give the gift that makes a real difference for the women in Central Texas facing breast cancer right NOW. Visit bcrc.org to learn more about how we can help, or click here if you wish to give back today.