It would be reductive to label writer-director Tahira Kashyap Khurrana, the wife of Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana, as a trophy star wife. It’s more apt to call her a larger-than-life breast cancer survivor who took agency of her own life.
The 36-year-old filmmaker brought cancer out of the closet and chronicled her battle with the disease with a warts-and-mole account on social media to erode the stigma around it.
“I have always said cancer has given me more than it has taken away,” said Kashyap Khurrana in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!. The mother of two young children, leads by example too. She was in Dubai recently to speak at the Filmfare4Cancer event where she interacted with other breast cancer survivors in the UAE.
A portrait of warmth and spirit, it’s impossible not be inspired by Kashyap — the lady with the funkiest collection of eye frames in Bollywood.
“I am high on life,” declares Kashyap proudly. We couldn’t agree more. Excerpts from our interview with the valiant star about dealing with the debilitating disease, her darkest hours and mastering the art of loving yourself…
Q: You have survived breast cancer. How do you look back on your journey?
A: I am loving where I am right now. When cancer happened, I was very receptive. My perspective was not that it has come to get me. It took it as an opportunity and not as an obstacle. Here is something to learn from it, I though. I needed to fix it and be out of the situation. My perspective was that I want a 2.0 version of myself. I took it as an opportunity for self-introspection. I realised that your mental well-being and your physical well-being aren’t two separate entities. If I am stressed, angsty, anxious, I looked at it as a mental condition. My physical body continued to do the work or the things charted out for me as a mother or a professional and that was abusive.
You need to respect your mind and body. They are in sync and in unison. It is a recent observation in my life and I may sound crazy, but I have always said that cancer has given me more than it has taken away.
Q: It’s an interesting thought… But have you always been this assured and fearless?
A: There was fear and each one of us go through the swing of positivity and negativity. One day you are out there to get the world and some other day I go: “I don’t want to get outside my house”. But I am so glad that cancer [diagnosed in 2018] happened to me when I was strong. I chant and practise Buddhism. That has helped me give a different perspective towards situations in life.
Initially, I was reactive as a person. I would get very angry. I haven’t calmed down fully, but now there’s always a thought behind my action. I was going very strong in my faith when cancer happened. I didn’t go: ‘why did cancer happen to me?’. That question didn’t enter my mind at all. The only question that arose was now that it has come to me, let’s deal with the problem, get out of this situation. Let’s get out of it in the most joyous way.
Suffering is there. You can’t take away the side-effects of chemotherapy, you can’t take away the physical transformation and you can’t take away the pain of the surgery. But if you have a high, joyous life then that journey zips past you. My practice in my faith has helped me gain perspective.
Q: You are credited for talking about cancer openly, unlike many who prefer to keep their journey private… You brought cancer out of the closet, how?
A: I have done my graduation in BSc Biotechnology and post graduation in Mass Communication and journalism. Despite having an eduction, I sat on my symptoms for over two months. It was crazy and obnoxious. But cancer wasn’t on top of my mind. I didn’t know anyone in my family who had cancer till then. But once I brought it out of the closet, I was getting calls from several family members and friends.
I wondered: ‘where were you all and how come I didn’t know anyone in my family who had cancer till I spoke openly about it’. Cancer wasn’t a part of my awareness. That’s why I am talking to you now. Early detection can really help in enduring cancer. Cancer gets easier if you discover it an early stage. If you feel something is not right, get an examination done.
I sat over it for two months. The symptoms were there as my breasts had started to feel heavy. It is not normal for breasts to feel heavy at 35. I was rejoicing and I was genuinely happy that my breasts were growing and it was happening to me naturally. Looking back, it was stupid.
After so much education, the growth of my breasts didn’t set me thinking. We also feel invincible at 35. I am not trying to alarm you all and I am a sucker for an invincible human spirit. But you can never be ignorant. I was ignorant for almost three months. I don’t want anyone to go through that.
Q: Were you surrounded by a good support system during your struggle with cancer?
A: I had the most beautiful support system and I hope and pray that every woman gets that support system in their lives. Women feel guilty about having cancer. But remember, nobody invites it or asks for it. It’s a patriarchal world in our county, although we are working towards the right direction. But if we have a long way to go because the men need to be conscious about it.
They are the decision makers in most families and they should extend their support to women. They shouldn’t feel the need to hide and they should urge their woman to get it checked. I want the men to step up. The breast cancer awareness drive should also be about men and they should also wear pink ribbons.
Q: Speaking of men, your husband was you pillar of support?
A: He spoke about it without any drama. We wanted to be honest with it. Initially, I didn’t know how to react and family members were advising me not to talk about it to anyone. That is how we are conditioned to think. But at the same time, I was meeting the doctors and undergoing the consequences of early detection. And I took the decision that I will open myself to the world after I have this surgery.
The day I got discharged, I posted about it and that took my husband by surprise. But he was very supportive and not once did he say: ‘You are not talking about breast cancer or you wont talk about reconstruction’. We both wanted to be honest about it. The intention is that nobody else should suffer.
Q: How important is your mental well being along with curing cancer physically?
A: I wish I had known its importance. I was too happy being in a sad world. I had made this super sad world around me. If you start to cry and mop incessantly, it becomes a part of your personality. You start enjoying your own sadness. That is not cool and that is where you need to step up and take professional help. I am grateful that I practised Buddhism. While medicines help, faith helps too. But each to their own.
I always say that cancer was not a turning point in my life. Cancer happened when I was already in a positive mind space. Mental and physical health and well being are extremely connected. They are not separate entities. You need to respect it.
Cancer was a manifestation of my negativity. Honestly speaking, it was not in my genes or lineage. I was 35, and I had two kids, I wasn’t obese or an alcoholic. There are all these parameters about being a suitable candidate for cancer, but I was not in that. I was returned from the mammogram lab twice. My ultrasound was clear and they even told me that my mammogram was clear, but the universe had my back.
Q: You have taken one for the women’s team with cancer. What’s your advice to them?
A: Women should learn to love themselves. They hear this time and again, but let it not be textual. We should pay attention to our mind, body and soul. The only thing that is going to last us is our body. While you husband and children matter a lot, you need to learn to love yourselves. Blessed are the women who already love themselves and I have utmost respect for them. But there are women like me who have to work towards loving themselves.