The morning of October 10 turned out to be quite an emotional moment for everyone present in the room. We were at a press conference inside a suburban five star hotel in Mumbai and on the stage was Bollywood actress Mahima Chaudhry, narrating her harrowing experience with breast cancer and eventual victory over it. For her, it was a deja vu moment; she let tears roll down her cheeks unapologetically and self-assuredly.
When she said, "People told me to be strong, I also told myself the same thing. But I did not want to give myself this fake sense of strength. Instead, I decided to embrace the reality for what it was, and gave myself the right to feel down and vulnerable when I had to. I told the doctor to remove both my breasts, I don't want to die," the room, full of cameramen and journalists went silent. In that instant, nobody said anything; nobody asked anything.
Chaudhry had her moments of "deep depression," moments when chemotherapy made it "severely challenging," her body caved in and made it obvious to her that it could not take any more. She fought it all, one step at a time. Rather, one session at a time.
In a candid conversation around her journey through breast cancer back in 2022, she had us all in rapt attention. "It wasn't easy to let my little daughter watch me in that state. I looked miserable with all that hair loss, energy and life draining out of my body on a daily basis, I looked wretched and sickly. My doctors gave me hope that being in an early stage, I'd recover and that I was not terminally sick. But my daughter couldn't fathom that because she saw me as being very sick and dreaded losing me forever. It was a heart-wrenching to see the fear of a parent's looming death in this child's eyes; it rattled me."
When Chaudhry was diagnosed with cancer, she was already struggling with a lot at home. Her mother, a Parkinson's patient required continuous care and so there were always three to four nurses at home at any given point and Chaudhary had made herself available to her mother at all times. Alongside, her school-going daughter demanded attention too. And so, Chaudhry never let her mother know about the diagnosis; only her close friends and the nurses at home knew that the 50-year-old had cancer.
Chaudhry is the face of SBI Life Insurance's 'Thanks a Dot', campaign, which moots the idea of self breast examination using a hot water bag which is commonly used by women to ease menstrual pain. Interestingly, the actress who has starred in popular films such as Pardes, Dhadkan and Dil Kya Kare, has had no family history of cancer.
Dr Nita Nair, Chaudhry's oncologist from Apollo hospital in Mumbai, says that 10 per cent risk factor of breast cancer is genetic which actually increases the chances of cancer diagnosis by 80 per cent. "Then there are also non-modifiable lifestyle factors such as simply being born as a female increases the risk and so does aging. The age at which we start and stop menstruating, obesity, reproducing late and not breastfeeding children are also risk factors," said Nair.
Having been through the worst, Chaudhry has been warning her friends to get timely breast examination done, but many still choose ignorance over knowledge, she said. "My friends, all of who are well-educated said they out of fear of what might get detected, they hadn't got their breast examination done for several years and neither did they intend to do. Because the knowledge that they had been hit by cancer would be far more devastating. The point I want to make is that breast cancer is completely curable if detected at an early stage and delaying examination will only further delay one's chances at survival,” she said.
"Had I been to my doctor in time, I might have been in a better position today," she added referring to the six month delay in getting her breast examination done.
"Had I not delayed it, I wouldn't have needed to undergo chemo."