Dr Arati Bhatia describes her own humbling experience with cancer and chemotherapy

The drainage tube and the negative pressure bag were my constant companions for sixteen days. I was not always respectful of them, even bouncing them around occasionally. I had an intense sense of relief when we were finally parted. They had served their function well. The wound had healed, and there was no collection or infection. Cosmetically, it was a job well done.

Post-mastectomy the strangest sensation was the lack of it. My elbow was numb. I had been unaware of the importance of my elbow to my wellbeing. Now I am reminded every day of what has happened. The operated arm must enter the shirtsleeve or blouse before the normal one. Earlier I had never given much thought to this. Suddenly you are more aware of your own body and its vulnerability.

I had always been proud both of my physique and looks, even though I had contributed little towards then. My tailor affirmed my arrogance. In his years of tailoring experience, I was the only woman whose size had remained so constant for the better part of thirty years.

I am blessed with thick, glossy, low maintenance hair. A shampoo and a brush is all they ever needed to spring into place. Sleep or gusty winds couldn’t disturb them. Suddenly I was terrified of touching my hair, leave alone combing them. Each hair hurt, yelling its impending doom. I procured a wig made from someone else’s hair. But I hesitated to run my comb through it. It was not my hair; however, this made-to-order wig was my only escape from chemotherapy-induced baldness.

I joined work after the winter break. Medical leave for the next round of chemotherapy had to be routed through the department office, forcing me to disclose my health status to my colleagues. My friends in the department already knew I had breast cancer, and were fighting their own battle, a bit like my family. The reactions I observed in the department got me thinking.

Many of my colleagues were about the same age as my self, give or take two to three years. Also, a department dominated by women is emotional! Crying is a common phenomenon. Disclosure to two senior colleagues was accompanied by weeping and hugging, an emotion I had never encountered in the department before. Were the tears for me or for themselves — a realization of their own susceptibility? I think the latter. As the news spread, many headed for the radiology department.

There were those who stood silently, some with tears in their eyes. Others reassuringly gave me the latest outcome for this type of cancer from the literature. They had done their homework well; these were mainly postgraduate students.

A third lot – the vast majority – failed to make eye contact. Either they could not handle it, or for them I had already passed on. Strangely, one person who had fallen out with me some years ago came to make amends. This was difficult to handle. It left me confused. He is highly religious and I felt he was looking for redemption, ensuring that I did not interfere with his karma.

Although it has been two years now, and I have moved on, coping with the immediate effects of chemotherapy had a permanent humbling effect.

Dr Arati Bhatia

Professor of Pathology

University College of Medical Sciences




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