“You need to have a strong goal; for me, it’s to be well for my children, to see them grow up,” says 44-year-old cancer warrior Aarti Sondhi.
The battle began in August 2020 when Sondhi discovered a lump in her right breast. One trip to the doctor led to another – for an ultrasound – and another (biopsy) and another, where she was told that she had tested positive for cancer.
The next step was a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which gauges how far cancer has spread. For Sondhi, the doctors discovered, it had infiltrated the liver. “So basically, I started with metastasis, or stage four cancer,” recalls the 44-year-old Indian expat.
Source: US-based National Cancer Institute
Because this was a travelling cancer, the doctors needed to first stem the spread, then operate. “It was hormone related, so for one year I was on hormone treatment. The medicines shrunk the tumours. In 2021 June, I had my liver ablation surgery,” says the Dubai-based mum of two.
Liver ablation refers to a treatment that destroys liver tumours without removing them. “These techniques can be used in patients with a few small tumours and when surgery is not a good option (often because of poor health or reduced liver function),” explains the US-based National Cancer Institute.
After the liver surgery, Sondhi readied herself for a mastectomy – there was more than one lump – and so, before heading into surgery a second PET scan was done. “And that’s when they found cancer in the sternum bone,” she sighs.
Since the surgery could be delayed no longer, she had the mastectomy and followed it up with radiation that would target the bone cancer. “By January,” she says, “I was due for another PET scan. The cancer in the bone had gone but in the right lymph node, which is basically attached to the breast – they found another tumour that wasn’t there earlier. And the profile had changed, so now I needed chemotherapy.”
“Now I am through with chemotherapy; I’m due for surgery next week. And after that radiotherapy. Hopefully, this is the last tumour … but I’ll have to continue doing these tests – keep monitoring it,” she says.
In all of this, she found solace in her children. “My kids were 11 and 6 when I was first diagnosed. But we didn’t want to hide anything from them, we decided to involve them. Even when my hair started falling, I got my family to cut my hair! I wanted to involve them so they don’t feel like it’s something alien,” she says.
Sondhi tried to foster positivity at home. “If I’m positive and don’t show fear or look defeated, the kids will be fine. Basically, they look at mum to see what she’s feeling and respond to that emotion,” she explains.
And she decided to keep their routines as normal as possible, playdates, outings, time with mum. However, since COVID-19 was around and she was a high-risk patient, they were enrolled in online schooling. “My son joined a new school and he had to be online, so it was tough for him. So, we spoke to teachers, counsellors and involved them. Because I know that sometimes kids may not open to you, so I wanted them to have a place. And otherwise you know, I keep them busy with their school and friends,” she says.
As for whether it’s exhausting to maintain a façade of cool, she laughs, “It’s not an act! It’s a philosophy we practise. Hope, courage, and wisdom is what we get when we pray and that translates into positivity. I personally believe that 90 per cent [of recovery] is mental and 10 per cent is physical, so if you have victory over your mind, everything else will fall into place.”
This outlook also gave her a practical direction; she decided to get stronger and healthier. “I have become a certified fitness and nutrition consultant,” she says. “In January of this year, I focused on strength training because I knew I had my chemo coming up, in March. So I have seen that because of me making my body stronger I had fewer side-effects of chemo. People have black nails, rashes all over. I did get some side-effects but not as much as many others.”
A beauty pageant
As she waited for her chemotherapy to come to an end, a serendipitous thing happened – she had an opportunity to make an old dream come true. “I was browsing through social media when I came across this [post about the Mrs. Universe competition] and I applied. I told them that I wanted to do this for cancer. So I want to come with my bald head, I don’t want to wear a wig – they were happy about it and accepted it. I did it and when everyone said they were representing their country, I said I’m representing cancer warriors,” she says. “I was first runner-up in that,” she adds.
Sondhi, who has already been approached by brands looking to work with her, is looking forward to exploring this avenue as soon as she is in remission.
Sondhi’s life lessons
Sondhi believes everything in life happens for a reason. Her cancer, for example, has given her the opportunity to raise awareness, to connect with others and to show first-hand that a diagnosis need not mean depression. She says: “It’s all about the mind. You’ve got to understand that whatever is in your mind that’s what you are going to manifest. So master your mind rather than letting your mind master you. Once you do that, everything will be very easy.”
And, she says, don’t try to go it alone. “I’m not the type of person who can easily take help but I learned how to. You need it at that time, for small things, for big things – accept whatever help you get,” she suggests.
But more than anything, have a powerful reason, a motivating factor that keeps you going, she says. “In my case, that is my kids.”