Indira Ahluwalia is tall and graceful with a warm, welcoming smile. She’s the picture of wellness and good health, or so you’d think. Her story, however, is about an illness that inspires dread, but it’s a remarkable and inspiring one.
In 2007 Indira was told she had metastatic breast cancer which had spread to her bones. She did not have long to live. But since that devastating diagnosis 13 years ago, Indira has beaten the odds and has not simply lived, but thrived.
Her forthcoming book, Fast Forward to Hope, describes the tortuous, but ultimately awe inspiring journey through the dark crevices of her disease, and the toolkits for survival she developed which she firmly believes, contributed to her recovery.
“I remember the day I went to my gynecologist’s office so well,” Indira says. “I had coped with a terrible back pain for weeks and was walking around with a cane. I had an appointment with an orthopedic doctor but then a new symptom appeared. I felt this awful shaft of pain from the underside of my right nipple all the way up my arm; it was a live, electric wire thing, and it prompted me to make an appointment with Dr. Maser, my obstetrician-gynecologist, immediately.”
That trip led to an immediate mammogram which diagnosed her breast cancer and her doctor insisted she get a PET scan.
“I had already been through an MRI for my back pain, but without contrast, and it didn’t show anything. But when I had the PET scan, my bones just lit up,” Indira recalls. “Dr. Maser, an incredibly supportive doctor, came out and held my hand and said to me “promise me you’re going to fight.”
The full meaning of what it meant to have the cancer in your bones didn’t hit Indira till later.
“I visualized a tiny, pinkie size spot somewhere, and was horrified when I saw the spread.”
The process of getting the right diagnosis is one of the first lessons in Indira’s book.
“My father had colon cancer and we were very conscious of taking care of our health and testing on time. I began having colonoscopies when I was 35. But I was 38 and had never had a mammogram. I simply didn’t see the connection or imagined it was a risk at my age. I didn’t know at the time that there is a genetic connection between colon cancer and breast cancer. It’s important not to underestimate your risk in any area, was the first lesson I learned. It’s also important to get every technologically advanced current diagnostic test done. My MRI without contrast hadn’t picked up the cancer in my bones.
Her second lesson was about the will to survive. At the time, her children were young: her son was 3, her daughter had just turned 5. After going through every stage of grief – denial, shock, anger and finally, acceptance, – Indira came to the conclusion that dying before she raised her children was simply not an option.
“You have to believe in what you want the outcome of your illness to be,” Indira says. “I had a simple choice – living or dying – and I was determined not to die. You also have to commit yourself to healing and not let a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness overtake you. I had some very low points in my treatment, when I had to actively cultivate my faith in the positive outcome I wanted – beating back the cancer. There is an enormous capacity all of us carry within us for self-healing and we need to believe in it, with gratitude and humility.”
Indira’s strong conviction about the healing power of positive thinking is borne out by recent research that supports the power of optimism and faith in changing the course of serious illness. She also found that being open about one’s suffering and disease brought enormous rewards.
“The first thing that comes to my mind from my ordeal is the goodness of people,” Indira declares. “I knew there was a stigma associated with cancer, but I was open about my illness and I was overwhelmed by the response I got from all sorts of people – friends, family, staff, clients, my children’s Montessori teachers, unknown strangers. She believes that given and opportunity, even random strangers offer unconditional kindness and compassion.”
She recounts a particularly moving incident. On a cab ride from her office in Ballston, the cab driver surprised Indira with a, “Oh, my God, it’s you!” He explained he’d driven her home some months ago, “…. you were talking to your doctor and you’ve been in my prayers ever since.”
“It was the simple humanity of his words which really touched me,” Indira says.
“Another of my primary anchors was my faith,” affirms Indira. “I believe in the Sikh tenet of Chardi Kala which is, essentially, cultivating a state of eternal optimism as one goes into battle. And I was going into battle with my cancer, with all the resources I could muster, including my state of mind.”
Her doctor told Indira he had used her first diagnostic scan from thirteen years ago and her most recent scan, to teach a class of medical students. He presented them as scans for separate individuals. His students diagnosed the thirteen year old scan as that of a patient unlikely to live, but gave the latest scan a great prognosis. His students were astonished when they heard that both scans belonged to the same person.
“My doctor told me that they needed to bottle the magical elixir I’ve used to beat back my cancer and distribute it to all his cancer patients,” Indira recalls.
“I’ve tried to share what I learned about my magical elixir in the book,” Indira says.” Writing it was a cathartic process and it lays out the essentials in terms of harnessing the science of your disease along with your faith and your social network, and creating your personal anti-cancer army. I really hope I can help others who may be going through a similar trauma. My advice to them: choose yourself and visualize your cure with all your heart.”
Indira’s book, Fast Forward to Hope, will be out in late April 2021 and will be available on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble and local bookstores.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents