There are a lot of people we know battling cancer, we term them to be ‘survivors’ but meet someone who we’d rather call a fighter. In her late 20’s Anisha was taken aback by the news of her being struck with cancer. With a flight ticket and seat to her dream grad school, her story of how she fought cancer is one that has inspired a lot of people. We spoke to her, and found out what she was actually put through in all that time, and how she deserves that title. Meet Anisha Oberoi, who now has a thriving career in the fashion industry with the world’s largest online retailer.
We know there were obvious reactions of shock when you were first detected, but was there something you did or your family did to deal with it without too much panic, especially because of your growing career?
I had a successful career in fashion with ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA heading PR and marketing when it happened. I was passionate, aggressive, wanting to create a difference. So, when I felt there was a lump in my breast, I consulted two gynecologists and they both told me it was a fibroid - I couldn’t have cancer because I was too young and there was no family history. A needle biopsy would have shown it to be malignant but they didn’t insist on it. In retrospect had it been diagnosed then, the treatment that I needed later may have been less severe. So, from January to July I just ignored it but then I missed my period again. I had a history of Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and the gynecologists attributed the lump to that - but then it then started to throb. Stage two cancer had now reached my lymph nodes.
The afternoon that I found out I took my hospital reports and rushed to my best friend's house, so yes - I did panic, it was like the wind had been knocked out of my chest. But, I usually approach everything as a project and this applies even to personal adversity. The panic turned quickly into a mental flow chart of the steps I needed to get through. I had already made a plan to go to INSEAD for which I had quit my job. At that point, I didn’t know that cancer treatment entailed radiation and chemotherapy, or that I would need surgery. I only knew that I had my life waiting for me and I couldn’t let anything get in the way.
In the process of you getting adjusted to all the changes your body was going through, did you have some help? If yes elaborate, if no, what made you manage it alone?
I don’t have a dad and was single then, apart from a few close friends and well-meaning relatives there was no one – they understood the importance of keeping me positive. I had eight rounds of chemo – by the third day you’re so tired that you can’t move. I was stuck in the room in bed and couldn’t go outside for risk of infection, but I made the most of it - I listened to music, watched movies and read some self-help books. My only job was to take care of myself. I had my days of deep anguish and disappointment – all of a sudden you feel like you’re of no use to anyone, and you can’t contribute to anything.
I had a seat at INSEAD and a potential career but I felt under-confident, weak and ugly. But there were also days where I went bald to a wedding in a sari, playing with my looks and entertaining myself… I would say that it was largely my own positivity, the love, encouragement and nourishment from my mother who was my biggest supporter/ chief caretaker and a few close friends that made me combat it the way I did. What did I have to lose?
How did you combat your dull days, and did you miss your work?
I had an understanding with my company - it was important for me to stay busy and so I continued to work with Zegna. There were days when I would go to the office, and days where I would work remotely when I was getting my chemo. My friends made sure the atmosphere around me was lively, they tried their best to make everything feel normal - even though one can never feel normal in a hospital room when you’re strapped to needles and nurses wear HAZMAT suits while mixing your medication.
How did you spend the days of full energy? Was the MBA prep the first thing on your mind?
Getting better was the first thing on my mind. I waited five years to go to the grad school I had been chosen for; it was the one thing that I wanted most and didn’t particularly know why. Ironically after cancer I felt very detached from it, I didn't want to go anymore. My family asked me to take time off and re-evaluate life: I’d been through something so hard, why would I want to go to a foreign country and live with strangers right after this harrowing experience. But that also sort of drove me back to it- I wanted to grab that opportunity and not be around people who reminded me of what had happened to me, and be hopeful and aspiring like every other student for new beginnings. I finally made my choice.
You openly mention that you chose the hard treatment which had some obvious repercussions; did you also somewhat feel ‘out of control’ of things you generally handle?
You cannot hasten the process; your body will take the time it needs to heal. After cancer comes the emotional upheaval, and then the social reintegration and personal prioritisation. You choose the treatment because the doctors will tell you it’s the best thing to do or you will die. For a young person in her 20’s the doctors have to fight extra hard to make you live longer as compared to other patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer in their 50s. There is no prescribed tenure of healing, it’s an individual process for each person.
You would have had a reduced social life, but did that make you stop socialising? Considering the fashion industry has been the one where you flourished, how did your illness change it for you?
They told me I had a glow, an aura when I was bald. People initially weren’t aware. I mentioned it on Facebook only about two months after my treatment started as I had sort of gone undercover, which led to questions given how social I am. It became very awkward for people, they didn’t know how to react or what to say. To ease the process for everyone, I turned to humor and made a lot of boob and bald jokes. No one wants a bald cancer girl in the party, while some people find it inspiring it makes most people uncomfortable for obvious reasons. I remember how I took permission from my doctor and went to Jaipur for a friend’s wedding and danced like it was my last time…I did what I could do.
Were there any new ways in which you managed your oral care, and your spa needs?
Your skin goes very dry, so you need to constantly moisturize it. I had to keep greasing my head with olive oil or shea butter. The new crop of hair is different in color and texture, which is also interesting. I enjoyed not needing waxing as all the hair had fallen. I got a massage once in a while when my scars were healing. You can’t have a Mani/pedi during chemo because of sensitivity of the skin, but that’s the last thing on your mind!
How was your experience with your Oncologist and other specialists?
I was lucky to have good oncologists and surgeons, my treating doctor Dr. Ashok Vaid of Medanta hospital who is a Padmashri award winner was my lead doctor, along with Dr Hemant Singhal who is now in London and so many others who supported me. I never had a bad doctor, and that made the process a lot tolerable.
Cancer has changed you to the person you are, and it’s been an experience you’ve grown from; do you have anything to say to people battling cancer?
I think that it’s important to hold on to your dream and let nothing interfere with it even if the other side seems unimaginable. Question everything - the treatment suggested, the medication, the statistics posed to you, the possibilities, even your own apprehensions. Question it all - and assert your personal belief system. Stay positive. Have faith. Someone close told me “I don’t know how you managed it, had it been me, I’d pack my bags, throw a big party for everyone I loved and leave without saying goodbye”. And I just told him that I’m no braver than you are - you will find it within you if it comes to that. Self-love is the most essential of all.. you won’t be able to summon the energy to get better if you don’t love yourself enough. You need to constantly keep working at it. I still am.
How important do you think the role of family and friends is in this journey? What was your support system like?
The most important. Nobody realizes that it’s often harder on the caregiver than the patient. If they make time for you, make you feel loved and cherished, then they should be held on to. I’m still close to that small group of people who I can count on my fingers. Some would send wigs as presents, and fresh organic vegetables from their garden, others would connect me to cancer survivors so I would have inspiring stories to uplift me. They would also sit around my hospital bed and chat about the world while I would undergo my chemo. After the treatment, many helped me get back on my feet professionally. I can’t imagine being where I am without them. Cancer changes you, but it makes you stronger, more joyful and more in love with your life than ever before.
Anisha Oberoi: Creative & Content Lead, Amazon Fashion, India