This is a series of #cancer stories I am writing to raise money for cancer research so that the vital work that needs to be done in cures and therapies may continue. In this series, I interview others who have or are still battling cancer in order to share their story, to empower and uplift. I have been raising money for cancer research since October 2018 specifically for Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM). All proceeds raised go directly to CRM – I take no part of the funds at all. If you would like to share your story, donate any amount to CRM, help spread this message or want to find out more, please contact me at rowena @ rowenamorais dot com. Thank you very much for reading.
This is Nisha Srinivasan’s story.
Welcome to my world
Hi there, my name is Nisha Srinivasan. I am 38 years old. I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and I continue to live in Chicago. I got married on 25 November 2016 and my husband is incredible. I am very blessed to be married to him. We met online in August 2014. I’ve got a very close-knit family – mom, dad and two younger sisters aged 36 and 28. My middle sister is married and has two daughters of her own (aged eight and two) and I love being an aunt to them!
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My mom started a day care in our home before I was born so that she could make money and stay home with her children. I began helping my mom with the day care from a young age. We continued to share our home with other children for many, many years. However, when I turned 20, I told my mom that we needed to expand, move out of our home and open a day care centre. So, we did that and now, we have four centres. Everyone in the family has some responsibilities in terms of running the centres. We also have two beauty salons.
I have always loved to travel. My family and I would go on at least one or two cruises a year for many years. My husband also loves to travel, and since our first meeting in 2014, we’ve gone on more than ten vacations together (seven of these after we got married, all of which were international destinations). We love being adventurous!
Our lives have been turned upside down
My cancer journey started on 30 June 2018 when I discovered lumps in my left breast. My husband and I had gone to Minnesota to visit his family for the weekend. That Saturday morning, I went into the shower and noticed the lumps as I washed. I also noticed that my skin was more swollen under my left armpit.
At that point, I showed my husband what I found and we decided we would go to the doctor once we got home. My left breast was also beginning to look swollen and I was having sharp pains. On 3 July 2018, my mom and husband took me to the hospital emergency room. Of course, the doctors and nurses couldn’t confirm anything at that point but they did get me to do a mammogram and ultrasound a few days later.
Both the mammogram and ultrasound didn’t confirm anything. However, the radiologist confirmed that he saw a mass. He just could not tell us what it was. I was then scheduled for a biopsy a few days later. At this point, I think my family and I had a feeling that we were about to come face to face with breast cancer. But a small part of us was still praying that this was just an infection as the radiologist did give that as a possibility.
After the breast surgeon performed the biopsy on 9 July 2018, he went into the waiting room where my husband and mom were waiting. My mom asked the doctor quite bluntly whether it was cancer. He responded that he would not know with any certainty until after he received the pathology report but he was about 90 percent sure that it was cancer.
Even after that, we were still holding on to that 10 percent that it may not be cancer.
Even after that, we were still holding on to that 10 percent that it may not be cancer. Over the next few days while we waited for the results, I tried not to think about the possibility that I had breast cancer.
It was short lived though as the confirmation came in from the doctor on 12 July 2018. I was 37 years old. I had just left my apartment to go to work and was waiting for the elevator. As the elevator door opened, my phone rang. I recognized the number immediately. It was the hospital where I had the biopsy done. I answered and indeed it was my breast surgeon. He confirmed that I had breast cancer and proceeded to explain the next steps to me. However, the second he said the words “breast cancer,” I tuned him out. I ran as fast as I could to my apartment where my husband luckily still was. I screamed and cried uncontrollably as my husband tried to calm me down and tell me that we were going to fight this together. My mom was also on the phone trying to calm me down. Unfortunately, when people hear cancer, death automatically comes to mind. At least, that was how it was for me.
Immediately, I started thinking about chemo and the harshness of the treatment and how I would lose my hair. My mind was running all over the place so fast. At that point, I didn’t know what the criteria was for chemo or any other treatment but I immediately told my mom and husband that I was okay with going through surgery and losing my breasts. But I refused to go through with chemo. From the very start, when the diagnosis was confirmed, things happened so fast. We had to go into the hospital immediately after the diagnosis for several tests to make sure the cancer had not spread anywhere else. We spent every day at the hospital either to meet with the cancer team, who would tell us what treatments would consist of, or I’d have to undergo more tests.
During the meeting with my breast surgeon and oncologist, it was confirmed that I would need to undergo chemo before surgery. I cried so hard. I cried at every appointment I went to. Everything was so overwhelming and our lives had been turned upside down. My husband and I didn’t have any children yet so we had to do fertility preservation before the chemo.
This poison was killing the cancer but it was also stealing me of my identity
I was so mad at my body for doing this to me.
Then the time came for the first chemo – 10 August 2018. I cried all the way to the hospital and also at the hospital as they were trying to get my labs. I had six rounds of chemo, three weeks apart. My last chemo was done on 11 December 2018. Throughout chemo, I felt so lost. This poison was killing the cancer but it was also stealing me of my identity. Not only did I not feel like me anymore, I also didn’t feel like a human anymore. I would embrace the few good days I had in between each chemo. As anyone who has gone through chemo will understand, I was so excited when the last day of chemo finally arrived. The side effects from chemo are cumulative and it seemed like the last cycle was harder to bounce back from. At the point of writing this (May 2019), I am finally starting to feel “normal” and back to myself!
I underwent a double mastectomy with direct to implant on 18 January 2019. With God’s blessings, the surgery went very well. However, once the surgery was done, it hit me that I had lost my breasts. Prior to surgery, I thought I would be content with losing my breasts but once they were gone, I felt very depressed. Due to the mastectomy, I have no feeling in my breasts and I have no nipples. Now that it has been four months since the surgery, I am healing well and I am not as sad as I used to be about losing my breasts.
I am especially grateful that I was able to get direct to implant at the time of the mastectomy because it allowed me to feel like a woman. With a bald head and no eyelashes or eyebrows, I think I would feel more terrible about myself if I did not have breasts. Now with hair and breasts, I thank God I am starting to feel more and more like a woman again!
I completed three weeks of radiation on 26 March this year. Fortunately, I did not have major side effects with the radiation, besides just a lot of fatigue. I’m starting to feel very good knowing that my treatments will be coming to an end soon. I will be having Herceptin infusions (targeted therapy) every three weeks until August. So far I don’t have any side effects with Herceptin, and God willing, it will stay that way. Every day I cannot believe how far I already am on this journey.
What’s changed since then
A lot has changed throughout this entire journey. The main one is the physical change I have gone through. I had a mastectomy with implants placed in me, so I don’t have my own breasts and I have no feeling/sensation nor nipples. I had ten lymph nodes removed underneath my left armpit and I have no feeling/sensation there either.
I was 37 years old when going through chemo, surgery and radiation but with the lack of energy, the joint pains and the menopause that chemo had put me through, I felt much older at times. I am now starting to get my energy back, the hot flashes have ended and my joint pains are gone. I am now going to the gym and loving it!
Cancer taught me so much about faith and that there is a God who is watching over you and holding your hand through any crisis you may be going through.
I have always had long hair and now I will have hair lengths I never experienced before. But for now, I am enjoying the short hair. Besides the physical changes, I believe I have also undergone a spiritual transformation. Cancer taught me so much about faith and that there is a God who is watching over you and holding your hand through any crisis you may be going through. I am now more in tune with my spirituality.
I have also changed my view on life – each moment is precious. I learned so much about family, love and taking care of my fellow human beings. I am now going to walk and live these lessons every day.
I am also focused on making lifestyle changes. I am eating healthier and exercising. I have a fighter’s mentality now and I will try to do whatever I can to keep this terrible disease away.
What has remained the same
I still want to live life to the fullest. I want to travel the world and meet new people. While I was going through treatment, I felt I would never get this urge back and that I would just be stuck at home for the rest of my life. Now that I am on the road to recovery, I am starting to feel excitement again and it’s amazing! In fact, my husband and I just went on a 12 day vacation for my birthday and it was wonderful! It is an amazing feeling when a sense of normalcy returns.
What I’ve learnt from the entire experience
The main thing I have learned from this entire experience is to count my blessings and not take anything for granted. We all feel that bad things cannot touch us and that these things just happen to other people. But we are all human and we are all susceptible to life altering events taking place in our lives.
One thing that kept me going even on the worst of days was counting the blessings I had, such as having an amazing support system in my husband, family and friends, being able to recover at home well due to our financial stability, having amazing hospitals and doctors nearby to choose from, having handled chemo and surgery well and having the recovery process go well. I have also learned how important it is to help other people and have empathy towards others no matter what hardship they may be facing. Although getting breast cancer is the most devastating thing that has happened to me, I am blessed with the lessons it has taught me.
My advice to others on a similar journey
Don’t give up! Yes, the journey is not easy by any means but it is doable. Fight for your life! Lean on God and your loved ones – they will help you get through this.
Things I would have done differently on this journey
First, I wish I would have taken my medications to combat the side effects during the first two chemo cycles. I thought I would be able to bypass all the side effects and I did not want to take in any more medicine – so I didn’t follow the protocol. I was very wrong! I started taking the medication when I began the third cycle and the rest of the cycles were much easier.
Second, because I was so angry about what I was going through, I started to push my husband and family away during the first four chemo cycles. I was in a very bad place emotionally and was not nice to those who loved me and were taking care of me. Thankfully, I realized that I absolutely need my family and husband to get through this and I changed my attitude towards them. I appreciated them and wanted them to be there for me. When I started doing that, I started to feel better, also.
My state of mind/philosophy on this issue
I believe everything happens for a reason. You can either learn from hardship or just be angry about it. I chose to learn from getting breast cancer. Right now, I am trying to live what I learned and it is a wonderful feeling! I want to remember what I went through so I can help others going through this. Of course, it’s terrible getting breast cancer but I am looking at it as a blessing in disguise.
How I coped with my situation
To be honest, at first, I didn’t cope with it well. I even wanted to quit chemo after the second cycle. However, as my faith and spirituality got stronger, so did my coping skills. I was able to accept what was happening and comprehend that this was temporary and there was light at the end of the tunnel. I also started focusing more on all the blessings I had, which helped get me through dark times.
Most importantly, I leaned on God and my loved ones and allowed them to take care of me.
I took this approach because I strongly felt this was the only way I was going to get through everything I was going through. And once I did all this, I could feel the difference within me.
Nisha Srinivasan who has an MA in Early Childhood Education is the owner and operator of Mosaic Early Childhood Academy based in Chicago, Illinois.