Suman Singh
Suman Singh with her daughter Image Credit: Supplied

The year, 2019, had swept by in a shudder of movement – the family had relocated twice already and they were finally settling into their new home in Gurgaon, New Delhi - India. Gulf News reader Suman Singh, who had found a lump in her right breast, kept putting off a visit to the doctors because it was moveable and so small that often she could not locate it. She was 41 at the time and friends and family were dismissing her concerns. But there was a niggling pain that would at times catch her unawares.

Before she could do much, India experienced its first COVID-19 wave and doctors’ visits along with any other out-of-home activities were pushed to the side. “I was already having this terrible pain and that stress started building up. So I went to a gynecologist and she asked me to go for an ultrasound. But it was a very strict lockdown. I couldn't and it started becoming even harder and more painful. But I couldn’t do the medical because of the lockdown,” she says.

One early morning in 2020 as she scrolled through her Facebook feed, she came across a post that seemed to relay her own symptoms. “One girl posted that she had similar symptoms to what I was going through. And she said that people say that the cancer doesn't feel like this. But please don't listen to people. The moment you feel doubt you go, she said,” says Singh.

A switch flipped in her mind and she decided to get to the bottom of her pain, to follow her suspicions. This meant convincing her doctor to screen her, regular COVID-19 tests and bills that they could ill afford. The cash crunch – they were reeling from her husband’s redundncy and her own loss of income – was beginning to draw cracks in their relationship.

Then came the day that would change everything. A few days after a biopsy, Singh went to the clinic to get her results. In a gentle voice, the doctor explained that it was a malignant lump; Singh had borderline stage 2 grade 2 breast cancer.

Suman Singh
Singh in hospital.

“When the doctor told me this I broke down. The very first thought came into my mind was, I am dying. And that is a very normal thought. And my daughter's face came to me … being a mother, you're not afraid of dying, you're afraid that if you die, who is going to look after to your child? Nobody can love your child as much as you can. I broke down further,” she says.

Singh says she remembers very little of what the doctor actually said – all she could think was, ‘What now?’

The next day things weren’t much better. After a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, she was told that the cancer was spreading aggressively and this would be considered an emergency operation. She was given three days to prepare herself and her eight-year-old child. She had three days to come up with the money for the surgery.

What is a PET scan?
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is an imaging test that can help reveal the metabolic or biochemical function of your tissues and organs. The PET scan uses a radioactive drug (tracer) to show both normal and abnormal metabolic activity.
Source: Mayo Clinic

Telling the family

One of the first things Singh and her husband did that day was to sit their little baby down and talk to her about the prognosis. “She cried a lot, because as a child, she thought, ‘Something bad happened to my mama.’ But when she saw me smiling and being strong, she settled. I saw a sudden change, you know, she started being very strong. And when times were tough, she’d motivate me!”

Singh, who was cognisant of her dwindling finances, first turned to her family - stepfather and brothers – for support. “They spoke to the doctor, they heard all the expenses, and then two days before the surgery, they stopped responding,” she says.

Seeing little hope, Singh found herself clutching the edges of her kitchen sink and praying for some help. She also posted on a Facebook group, writing, “I've come to know that I have cancer. I don't have a job. I have an eight-year-old daughter, my husband is also jobless. Please pray, please pray that my cancer doesn't spread to my lymph nodes.” The group rallied and within hours someone had pledged Rs10,000.

She had also spoken to her pastor about this diagnosis and unbeknown to her, he had reached out to the church, raising another Rs250,000.

She was also contacted by a friend of a friend who helped her post on another Facebook group. She cried as she reached out for strangers to help; her pride shattered, her grief still coming in waves. “The woman was very kind. She said, ‘This is not about you, it’s about your daughter.’ I was very embarrassed.”

Once the message was out there however, help trickled in. “Every 10 seconds the money was coming in,” she says. (Over the next year, Rs140,0000 would be raised to help Singh with her treatment.)

In gratitude as much as in anger she wrote on Facebook about what had transpired, thanking those who helped and lashing out at the family that did not. These allegations went somewhat viral in her hometown of Raipur and in the middle of trying to recover from surgery, plan her chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she found herself fielding calls from people who wanted to know what had happened. “So much was going on that I had little time to digest it all.

“So all the drama was happening … it was like a very traumatic movie. Then I became so strong, I kept on moving. I felt very thankful towards the group [that helped me] I kept updating them. I kept moving forward, I kept doing treatment and I started motivating patients. Like, every time they'll see me smiling, they never see me crying. Yes, life is not easy. I used to break down, but [because of my faith] I would again get that strength. I would motivate someone else. And then that person would get motivated, I would get motivated. And that's how my journey went on,” she says.

“It wasn’t easy, but what I learned was the fear of it was the worst side-effect. Yes, I had nausea and constipation and dizziness and burning sensations, but the fear of what would happen was so much worse,” she adds. “If you are positive, if you are engaged, if you are doing something, you will feel better.

“I had eight cycles of chemo and 31 of radiotherapy, they were tough. I suffered, because it was difficult to swallow, my skin at the end started becoming dark and at one point my skin began to flake.. It was just painful and boring every day to go to the doctor… there were times I felt like, ‘No more’ and my daughter would say, ‘No mama, you’ve been so strong. You have come this far. You can't give up.’ She was really my strength.

Loss of hair

Singh recalls a tad sheepishly her reticence at head shaving, so she started by cutting her mane short. “When I went for a second chemo, I saw my hair was sticking to my neck and my hands and everywhere. After I had a bit of a cry, I sat myself down at the hairdressers and had my locks cut off. I looked, I forced myself to look towards the mirror. And I had an epiphany. I posted that photo online. And I wrote: ‘This is a symbol of something going, but new hair will come again, and my comeback will be stronger too.’”

Suman Singh
Singh feels motivated when she sees how her positivity affects others.

She continued to keep posting about her cancer journey and slowly people began to reach out to her. “I realised that my smile, my positivity was helping others. And then time came that I was in such a position that I could not break in front of them, I needed to be strong for them,” she explains.

When she began to heal, Singh also began to look for a new job and chanced upon an opening in, where she began to connect with other survivors and helping those diagnosed fight the fear.

There is great loneliness that comes with disease, says Singh. “There is a stigma in India, even today people are not that free to speak about it [their diagnosis], caregivers don't understand what we're going through and they don't want to understand about it because more than us they get scared of cancer. It’s really important for us to come forward and talk about what’s happening. And it takes a toll on your relationships with near and dear ones. My relationship with my husband, for example, hasn’t been the same.”

Positive though she is, Singh is once again holding her breath – she found another small lump in her left breast. This week she waits for her biopsy result. She smiles – what will come will come. And she’ll make it through the day.

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