“I was declared cancer free for the first time since that godforsaken day when my tongue ran over what I thought was a rather unseemly tiny bump in my mouth. Nine years ago!” Hemant bhai finished his narration that spanned his treatment of almost a decade including multiple surgeries, chemo and a host of other treatments which required frequent hospitalisation. But his voice was neither chirpy nor excited. He looked at his wife Tarulata ben and she pressed his hand reassuringly. All three of us knew what was coming next.
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“Shall we take a break before we begin with Tarulata ben?” I asked and we got up to stretch our legs and made casual conversation.
The couple, Hemant bhai and Tarulata ben, were the tenth narrators for the book Ten on Ten, funded by the Ahmedabad Cancer Foundation, as a tribute to head and neck cancer survivors and their indomitable spirit. This was the first couple where each was the other’s primary caregiver. You see, the day Hemant bhai was declared cancer free was the day Tarulata ben told her family about the lump in her mouth! Yes, it was cancer. She had suspected it for a while. When I asked if it was not rather extreme to think that a bump in her mouth too was cancerous, she said, “I had seen it in my husband and the trajectory seemed frighteningly familiar.”
We sat down with our tea and coffee. I started my voice recorder and looked at Tarulata ben, waiting for her to begin. She just stared at me. Perhaps she couldn’t find the words to begin. It was Hemant bhai who broke the silence.
“We had lost two crucial months. My wife had been waiting for me to get a clean chit before she even told us about the lump behind her wisdom tooth. For sixty days she had been enduring the pain and discomfort because my doctor was still running some tests on me. Finally I was declared cancer free and she told us about the little bump in her mouth.
“The very next morning we went to the doctor, who sent us for biopsy. The two days before the result came in was spent in praying. The report came ‘Positive’. Positive for cancer cells. Our hearts sank as we wondered if it was one of God’s cruel jokes. I remember we sat around the drawing room with the paper in complete silence. Everyone except Tarulata was crying. She was still relieved that I was fine and didn’t think much of what had just been announced for her. ‘You need your father, he will be there. I am done with my duties. I have played with my grandchildren, God cured your father, so what if he has decided it is time for me to go.’ She said to all of us.” His voice trembled as he recounted the day.
Tarulata ben then took over the narration. “Hemant got up from his seat, wiped his tears and said to me. ‘You have helped me deal with this wretched thing for close to a decade, what makes you think I will let you walk away? No, you will fight this for us, like I fought for all of you. We will respond to the hand God dealt us’.” Tarulata ben’s voice became heavy and Hemant bhai took over again.
“The next day we visited the doctor at the appointed hour. The moment we entered his cabin the doctor joked that we were getting eligible for the family package. We laughed. He had already studied the report and told us that the cancer was totally curable, but Tarulata would need surgery to remove the affected tissues. We heaved a sigh of relief. But Diwali was around the corner and Tarulata wanted to celebrate it at home. The doctor gave us leeway and scheduled surgery for the day after Diwali. On Diwali day we lit diyas and with it burnt all the negativity and pain away. All of us performed aarti together.”
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Tarulata took over the narration once again. “After the surgery I started on chemo and radiation.
Hemant knew exactly how my body would react and was with me every step of the way, from helping me eat and rest right to handling the irritation that comes with such aggressive treatments.
I faced it all, just like he had – weakness, loss of appetite, constant feeling of nausea. He helped me deal with them without once throwing a fit, I threw so many! He used the tricks that I used on him to make me eat. I asked him once during the treatment, ‘What would I have done without you?’ He said, ‘Actually this is just tit-for-tat, it is my chance now to boss you around like you did then!’ With many such lighter moments the pain of the treatment became easier to deal with.”
When I asked Hemant bhai for a message for my readers, he pointed out that in our society, women put their health on the backburner as they deal with the small and big issues of their home and family. But the lady of the house is the lynchpin who keeps the family together. Her health is no less important that anyone else’s. He said, “To the men in our society, I would like to say, ‘Please be cognizant of this disposition of women to treat their own health lightly, it is here that we should take the lead and deal with it with the seriousness that our life partners deserve’.”
I met the couple again at the book launch and watched them taking turns holding the plate as the other ate.