It was with lot of dreams and hopes that Elizabeth Mathew, along with her three daughters, returned back to Dubai in the summer of 2016 to be with her husband, Rajesh Abraham Chacko. Her elder daughter was about to start college and Elizabeth Mathew was eagerly looking forward to get back to work after a gap of seven years. Little did she realize then that life had other plans for her when a chance examination of her breasts and a subsequent talk with her elder daughter prompted her to take a mammography.
While she didn’t pay much heed to the discovery, it was her elder daughter who, thanks to the school campaigns raising awareness on breast cancer, was adamant about Elizabeth taking a mammogram and pushed her to go for the tests. However, even though the mammogram came back negative, something in the back of Elizabeth’s mind led her to convince her doctor to conduct a clinical examination which led to the discovery of the irregular cells in her body. This time, though, the results came back positive. Elizabeth, who had driven by herself to the clinic to collect the report, went with the report to her cousin’s place from where she called her husband to give the news. Her husband, needless to say, was devastated and broke down, despite she telling him how they will fight it out together.
Even before the test results came, she had made plans for a movie night with her husband. She decided to continue with the plan to buy time before she broke the news to her daughters. After a happy night out, the next day morning, she sat down her two elder daughters and told them about the reports.
Slightly contrasting to her husband’s reaction, she proudly recalls how her daughters stood strong and handled the news with poise. “It’s ok, Amma. We will fight this out together”, was her elder daughter, Elsa’s reaction. Her second daughter, Sara, although was a bit shocked about the news initially, ensured that she didn’t upset her mom.
That day, Sara had made plans for few friends to come over to her place and she offered to cancel it. Elizabeth, however, rejected the offer immediately, telling the girls how all of them would still be leading normal lives and this was not a big deal, prompting Sara to go ahead with her day’s plans.
It was then that the real ordeal started. While she initially restricted the news to just a handful of her close friends, eventually, with their encouragement she shared it with her larger circle of friends – mainly her school and college friends, who were constantly in touch with each other thanks to WhatsApp. Ultimately, it was these friends and her doctor uncle who helped her finalise her hospital and doctors when she was unsure with the options in front of her. While she started her treatment at Narayana Hrudayala in Bangalore, with her brother and sister in law’s help and support, she shifted her treatment to Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Cochin under Dr. Vijayakumar. While her immediate family had a breakdown, constantly fearing the outcome and worrying about her, Elizabeth can’t tell enough about how her friends, cousins and even her sister in law, who jumped in to fill the void not having a sister left, have been her pillar of strength all throughout. Today, when nuclear family has gained popularity, which has led us to confining our sorrows within the immediate family, Elizabeth thanks her stars for the support she received from her extended family including cousins and friends who were constantly there for her. They ensured that she was never alone in this ordeal, right from being there with her when her biopsy results were out to being with her daughters while she was away for surgery and chemotherapy. A close friend (pictured right), a Supreme Court lawyer, flew down from Delhi, just to be with her when she shaved her head and cheer her.
Of course, surgery and the chemo sessions did bring her down. She feels she could have been better informed so that she could have prepared herself better for the post surgery pain and trauma. What everyone told her was that it was going to be a minor surgery. However, no one told her how difficult the next few days were going to be. Yet, this superwoman came out bright even through those dark days with her positivity and will to fight the unwanted ‘C’ cells. And when asked how, she gave me an answer that you hear very rarely, or quite often never heard at all – about her trust and confidence in the hospital and her caregivers. She completely trusted her doctor, who she says, gave her so much positive energy to fight the fight, and she claims it helped her in her path to recovery. Along with that, despite the surgery trying its best to bring her down, she resisted and fought with all her will, never letting any negative energy to surround her, urging herself to get up from the bed to walk around to fight the pain, and including resistance and immunity building vegetables and pulses, garlic and horse gram being her favourite, in her diet.
Yet, there were times when she wanted to give up and run away – times when she was overwhelmed and didn’t want to accept the reality. In those moments, she reached out to her family and friends. When she told her friends she is leaving everything behind and going to the Himalayas, her friends excitedly told her they will go with her, only after beating the cancer cells. At times, when the going did seem tough, it was her daughters’ strength that was her driving force.
She remembers, once her second daughter came to her and told her, “Amma, you will loose your hair. But that’s ok, it’s because of the treatment and you don’t have to worry about it. It will grow back.” She was astonished about how her little girl knew about it all when she had totally no idea about the disease.
While initially, the youngest daughter, who was all of six years then, wasn’t fully aware of what was happening – she was just told that Elizabeth had to go for a surgery and treatment – she too took it in the most positive spirit when she came to know about it. For this, Elizabeth thanks the schools, who played a prominent role in raising awareness about cancer to the children and the various campaigns that helped the little ones in understanding the illness better and being supportive.
In fact, it was because of one of such campaigns, that her eldest daughter, Elsa, made sure that Elizabeth took the doctor’s appointment and went for the test and yet another campaign, Protect Your Mom, left her astounded, when her youngest daughter, Maria, persisted that she wanted to shave her head to support her mother.
Elizabeth can’t tell enough about how these campaigns helped her and her daughters in this fight. She quite rightly tells how she wouldn’t have been able to stay strong and have the will to fight this fight if her daughters were shaken and distressed.
In fact, as much as the campaign, reaching out to friends and family helped her a great deal in this ordeal, and hadn’t it been for them, she might have had to leave it midway. She fondly talked about her circle of amazing people, who ensured that her daughters were not alone while she was under treatment, who took efforts to celebrate her elder daughter’s 18th birthday even when she was far away from them, friends she woke up in the middle of the night, because she couldn’t sleep and wanted to talk to someone, who was there at every moment in her life – whom she says not just supported her, but suffered with her. In fact, she jokes about how her mother complained how she was always on the phone, talking to someone or the other. However, her friends stayed by her in a way, her family wasn’t able to; because her illness, in fact, affected them much more than her.
This led her to the realization about the need for support for the family as much as or even more than a patient needs and she can’t emphasize enough about it. Upon seeing Elizabeth with her shaved head, her husband too took his hair out. But she says, how he is a classic example for the saying “the family too needs support”.
He found it difficult to come terms to the truth and couldn’t fight his tears. He wanted to leave his job and everything else behind to be with Elizabeth, but friends and relatives came into the picture to calm him down. Although there were many challenges on the way, the constant challenge for him was seeing Elizabeth going weak and clumsy every single night yet being there for her. Yet, in her words, “somehow we are going through this as we are going through our 20th year of married life”.
From the beginning though, Elizabeth has been determined to beat the ‘C’ cells in her body. She kept telling her family how it was like any other illness, which too has risks of its own, and took her treatment without fear. Of course, despite being positive and cheery, fighting the unwanted cells with a smile, Elizabeth says how she had to take a back-step many a times and a lot of things had to be given up. There were times when she had to take a backseat because she was prone to infections and had to stay away from functions and gatherings, including not being able to go to her church to attend the mass and missing out her daughters’ birthdays, amongst other important occasions. Yet, belief and prayers gave her the much needed strength to carry on the fight even when she fell back. She proudly says how it was not just one or two who prayed, but an entire community of people who prayed for her well being and she can’t thank them enough.
There have been many ups and downs in this fight. Moments when she found herself floundering, when she almost fell into the clutches of depression, a much more dangerous illness than cancer, according to her, and fighting which, was a fiercer battle than fighting cancer, a reaction to a medicine brought her heart pumping rate down, low blood pressure bouts and numerous trips to the hospital. But even amidst all these, she found her sense of humour, held on to her fighting spirit and positive attitude without which, she claims, medicines would not be able to work their magic. She also fondly remembers how, during the dark days, she held on to a special story her uncle told her about a Jew being jailed and tortured, yet nobody could bring him down because he held on to his positive mind frame.
She says with full conviction, “it can hurt you, make you physically weak, but nothing can take away your attitude, and if you hold on to it, then nothing can hurt you”.
This iron lady, is nearing the finishing line in her fight against cancer. Being there, she stresses on the importance of reaching out. In her own words, “people need to be true relatives than just being Facebook relatives. We need to reach out to other people – you need to ask for help and you need to offer help. It is not always an unnecessary intervention. When a person is going through a tough time, you need shoulders to cry on. You really need the company of other people to overcome difficult situations. Now I really understand the true meaning of what we always learnt in social studies – man is a social animal, and I can’t stress enough on that”.
She refuses to see the last one year in her life as a punishment, rather, she emphasizes how it has helped her to understand the bonding of relations better. What she once took for granted in her life is more appreciated and recognised now – her family, friends and even something as natural as the sunlight. She tells me in her infectious cheery voice, “when you wake up, you see the sun and you feel blessed for one more day”. She may not be extraordinary. But she is definitely an ordinary person fighting an ordeal in the most extraordinary manner leaving you in awe of her!