The Star/ Asia Nestwork
A woman's hands holding pink breast cancer awareness ribbon (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)
When Ashwini Sivananthan felt a lump in her right breast, she knew almost instinctively that something wasn’t right. She promptly made an appointment to see her physician who then referred her to the Radiology Clinic for tests. Two days later, she got the results: she had Stage 2 breast cancer.
Ashwini’s world came crashing down in April this year.
“I broke down. The only thing that went through my head was ‘this isn’t possible, I’m only 30’,” shares Ashwini, a special needs teacher who lives in Perth, Australia. “I remember sitting on my bathroom floor, crying for the longest time. I was pretty much mute the next few days. It really wasn’t something I thought I would have to process: I have cancer.”
Everything happened very quickly after the diagnosis. Ashwini met with a breast surgeon who explained that her cancer was oestrogen positive and treatable. She scheduled a lumpectomy and met with an oncologist to plan her treatment.
But before starting her journey, she wanted to return to Malaysia for the comfort and solace that only home could offer.
“I had tickets to Malaysia for the school holidays and my surgeon gave me the OK to travel home. So I came home before the insanity (of chemotherapy) started. For 10 days, I forgot I had cancer. It was so great to be around family,” shares Ashwini who has been residing in Perth for the past 11 years.
It has been six months since her diagnosis, and Ashwini recently completed her sixth and final week of radiation therapy which followed four rounds of chemotherapy.
“I barely got any sleep the night before my first chemotherapy session because I was so nervous. Sleeping tablets didn’t work either. Chemotherapy really felt like death knocking on my door. I was lucky not to have experienced all the side effects from chemo – I didn’t have mouth ulcers, nausea or vomiting. But the fatigue and bone aches were awful.
“Losing my hair was also terrible. I’ve always been (obsessed) about my hair – I have trims every eight weeks. Any hair masks I read about, either store-bought or home made, I’ve tried them. So having to watch my hair fall was incredibly traumatic. I decided to shave my head bald after a few days of it falling and I have been using wigs, which hasn’t been too bad,” says Ashwini.
Though chemo and radiation therapy are done with, Ashwini’s nighmare isn’t quite over: she has to be on daily medication for the next five years. “People think that as soon as chemotherapy and radiation are over, everything is done. But it’s not. The medication I’m on for the next five years comes with many side effects. I am still processing all this, to be honest. Breast cancer, like other cancers I am sure, takes a lot out of you.
“I’m grateful that it’s only taken a tiny part of my boob but it has taken my hair and, it seems, it will be taking a significant part of my life. My cancer loves my estrogen, so that’s gone. And my self-esteem was so low, I began to question the high resilience I once had. Life is pretty much never going to be what it was but it’s up to me to make it as normal as possible for myself.
“What has empowered me throughout this journey is knowing that I have come out the other end alright. I am capable of everything I would like to achieve and beyond. To women and men who are going through this, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Your body is designed to fight everything it possibly is able to. You need to trust your body.”
As agonizing and overwhelming as it all has been, Ashwini is grateful to have her family with her throughout her journey right from the get go.
“I am blessed with an amazing family. I had five family members who flew in to Perth the morning my results were due. As soon as I was diagnosed, my sister and cousins drew up a roster for everyone to fly to Perth to be with me at different stages of my treatment. At no point was I alone. My mother spend three months in Perth and others came in and out to help.
“I also have a group of close friends in Perth who were there for me every step of the way, from dropping off food, taking me to my appointments to just hanging out with me,” says Ashwini.
Her support network also helped her deal with the many well-meaning but sometimes overwhelming barrage of cancer-related (and sometimes conflicting) information and remedies for her to try.
“When you are diagnosed with cancer, people around you tend to want to share stories and remedies that they have read or heard about. All this is done out of love, I know that, because that’s how people think they can help. I was glad to have my sister and cousins ‘buffer’ me from the onslaught of information. They’d research the suggestions before they reached me,” she shares.
Ashwini is also passionate about raising awareness about the disease. She’s openly shared her cancer journey on her social media platforms to share her experience with cancer and also to connect with other survivors and draw support from them.
“There are many women around the world who are thriving despite the diagnosis. If you have been recently diagnosed, know that there are others out there. There is even an online community to help you. I connected with women from as far away as America, Canada and Ireland over the past months.
“Cancer can happen to anyone. It’s not just an older person’s disease. Most importantly, it’s not the end of the world,” says Ashwini.
Life as she knew it may have changed but Ashwini is confident that she will continue to live “a happy and eventful life” after cancer.
“It sucks that it happened and I’d be lying if I said that life hasn’t changed. I now take two juices a day – a green juice in the morning and a mixed berry juice in the evening. I’ve never done that before. I’ve also cut out sugar which was exceptionally hard because I have a major sweet tooth. As for living my life, if I want to do something and it makes me happy, I’m going to do it,” she says.
Ashwini’s advice to women, young or old, is to always be vigilant.
“Check yourself. My cousin was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer a few years ago and because of that, I became quite breast aware. That’s how I discovered my lump. So my message to women and men is to always check yourself because cancer is a relentless disease that doesn’t discriminate against age, gender or the colour of our skin. If you notice something different about yourself, don’t be afraid to get it checked. Early detection is key to surviving this s*** show,” she says.