Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or nearly one in six deaths. Separately, about 20 million new cases were diagnosed worldwide in 2020 alone. To raise awareness about the different types of cancers and their prevention, as well as support those affected by it, February is designated as National Cancer Prevention Month and February 4, in particular, is World Cancer Day.
I spoke to Gaggler’s very own Monica Malhotra this month, who was unexpectedly diagnosed with lung cancer last fall in October 2022. With absolutely no family history of lung cancer or lifestyle choices to pin it on, Monica describes coming to terms with the diagnosis that has turned everything upside down, and yet provided a chance to make things right in their own way.
For me personally, working closely with Monica during this challenging time has been an instruction in the power of discipline and sheer will; the quintessential drive to see things through balanced with honouring the demands of the mind, body and spirit. She shares some of those insights here.
CEO and founder, Gaggler
Monica was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer in late October 2022. Here, she shares some of the lessons learned on the journey and what it means to truly focus on wellness.
What was your experience with cancer when you were first diagnosed?
The moment was very surreal. I heard the diagnosis. I understood the diagnosis. However, I did not feel negative, nor did I think to myself, “Why me?” I didn’t cry. I was too busy mulling to myself about what this all meant, what the [lesson was] for me here.
I was just in this moment of contemplation, this very distinct and clear moment where I had this knowingness that my life was never going to be the same. I could feel my life was going to change in many ways after this moment, that I was going to change from that day forward.
Family and friends say I was probably in shock, but I didn’t feel shock. I was very much focused on getting better so that I could leave the hospital and go home, and this focus continued after I received my diagnosis, too. So, it was a very unusual moment for me, neither negative, nor positive. It just was.
How did you cope with the physical and emotional challenges of cancer?
From a physical perspective, the early days were challenging.
When I was hospitalised in late October 2022, I thought it was pneumonia. I had a dry cough that had started two months earlier with no other symptoms. I didn’t think much about the cough as it was occasional and I had no other symptoms to be concerned about. By the third week of October 2022, things started to escalate and within a few days I was admitted to the ER because I was having trouble breathing. Fluids were building up around my heart and one lung hence the shortness of breath. This period took the most toll on me physically and there wasn’t much I could do to cope other than trust the team of doctors around me and have faith in the family members advocating for me so that I received the best care.
Once the diagnosis was made, my doctor suggested I start chemotherapy right away. What you might have read about chemotherapy and its impact on the body, it’s true. I felt tired all the time, my skin felt dry and looked like it turned a shade or two darker, and I didn’t have much appetite. From an emotional perspective, the prospect of chemotherapy was probably my lowest point.
Chemotherapy made the cancer diagnosis more real, somehow. I didn’t feel or look like myself. During this time when I was most disoriented and felt nebulous, I listened to spiritual music, meditated, and focused on doing whatever I needed to, to be at peace within.
What advice would you give to someone who has been newly diagnosed with cancer?
Don’t take a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. Cancer doesn’t need to be that ‘finality’. There is now such advanced medical research, innovation in genetic testing, and targeted drug formulations that it is very conceivable that you may be able to treat your cancer like any other chronic disease and avoid the traditional means such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy that whilst do work to treating cancer, also do much harm to your body.
Explore all your options and leverage your network to self-educate. I know it sounds nuts – network when you find out you have cancer! My cancer is from a rare genetic mutation called ALK Positive that makes up four percent of all cancer cases. I had never heard about it, nor did I know that some cancers originate from gene mutations.
When I spoke with family members and close friends, this was new information for them too. And through a collective network of family and close friends, I gained access to doctors at leading institutions here and in the United States who helped confirm, calm, and explain matters related to my diagnosis and treatment plan so I could make informed decisions.
Focus on advocacy. You need to advocate for yourself. If you are too sick to do so, then you need to have someone close to you, maybe your spouse or another family member you trust, to advocate for you.
I have to say I have received some of the best healthcare imaginable in these last few months. However doctors, nurses, and hospital administration are human beings too and things can fall through the cracks unintentionally, so you or your trusted advocate needs to be on top of your medical journey making sure you have copies of all your medical reports, X-rays, scans, and prescriptions.
In the early days of my diagnosis, I was on 10 different medicines and needed regular appointments with five or six different specialty doctors. It’s a lot to manage.
What has been the most difficult part of your cancer journey?
So far, the hardest part has been the physical aspect of this disease. I’ve always been a healthy person and hardly ever fall sick, so to go from that to not being able to breathe on my own, needing oxygen support, being too tired to walk a few steps, and having to be hospitalised, was a real challenge for me to accept.
I’ve always been a strong person and that period made me feel very weak. I had to embrace being weak and accept that it was okay and allow others to step in and help me do things I couldn’t do for myself. It was a humbling and enlightening period, as well as a challenging one.
How do you stay positive throughout your treatment?
I believe you are the company you keep. I focused on doing things that made me feel good – listening to spiritual music, meditating, surrounding myself with positive and uplifting people, and listening to empowering podcasts. I started to read again. For me, it was about focusing on putting goodness into myself so that I could feel and be more positive.
What did you learn about yourself during your cancer experience?
Cancer has been a great teacher for me. When I received my diagnosis, I remember the one thought that kept running in my mind in a loop: ‘What does this mean for me? What lesson is there for me here?’ For me, this behaviour was drastically different from the ‘Why is this happening to me?’ mentality I had just seven years ago. I had an eye-opening revelation that I had come a long way since then.
I also learned that I need to prioritise what’s important to me. I am guilty of saying ‘Life’s too short’ and then working 14-16 hours a day. When cancer happened, that all changed. I was not well enough to work for even one hour a day, so I had a lot of time to think and my thoughts would always go to my family and how they would remember me. I realised I had some work to do in that department and that is something I work on now each and every day, setting aside time to be present for them.
I am focusing much more on my personal wellbeing. You would think being the founder of a wellbeing platform I would have that down pat, but I am human too and like many women, I am guilty of thinking of my health and mental wellbeing last. Now, I spend at least one hour a day on myself – I may use that time to meditate, listen to a podcast, go for a walk, or read a book. This time renews me and enables me to be present for others in my life. It really is true: if you fill yourself up first, you can fill others.
I also used the time to think about Gaggler and how I wanted to use the platform to create positive impact on a larger scale. I love what we do at Gaggler, but I realised I was doing many things that didn’t necessarily align with the purpose for which it was created. I spent three years building this platform and when I started it was about having a positive impact and creating awareness about women’s wellbeing. So now, I’ve come full circle to refocus on Gaggler’s original mission.
What was the most important thing that helped you get through your cancer journey?
Staying positive is so, so important. I can’t stress that enough. It’s easy to say ‘be positive’ and harder actually to live it when you find out significant health news. But whatever it takes for you to be positive, do it.
I found going inward brought me the most peace and led to me being able to be positive, so spirituality was and still is a big resource for me. I restarted meditation. I expanded into podcasts and now do my daily walks listening to a different podcast from leading health and wellness professionals. What brings others positivity will likely differ and whatever it is keep doing it because it does make a difference.
What would you tell someone who is feeling overwhelmed by their cancer diagnosis?
This too shall pass. It may sound cliché, but I do believe that the challenges we are given are because we are strong enough to handle them. We might not know the extent of that strength as yet but we have it, because we have been presented with this challenge.
Search for the lesson. Nothing that happens to us happens for nothing. There is a lesson, a message for us in every challenge. And the challenge is your time to find that lesson or message.
Observe the words you use. Whether it’s in conversation or in self-talk, words are powerful. I don’t refer nor think of myself as a cancer patient or cancer survivor. My mindset is that “cancer is manageable” because I am managing it with daily capsule medications. My mindset is “cancer is an opportunity” because it has given me the opportunity to think about my life differently, to make lifestyle and personal choices, and given me the chance to make tangible positive change. I am grateful each and every day for my improved health and wellbeing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’d like to share that it is really important for people to know that cancer can be caused by genetic mutation, and it can happen at any time within a person’s lifetime. It is not necessarily that the mutation was passed down from your parents, although this can occur with mutations such as BRCA which became a household name after Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy after finding out she was positive. Some gene mutations occur when the structure of the gene alters and then cells multiply at an accelerated rate as a cancer across the body’s organs.
If you have a cancer that is out of character for your health profile, chances are you may have a mutation and should explore this as an option with your doctor. Genetic testing is necessary and typically takes two weeks to get the results. My tests were sent to Foundation One in the United States which, I learned from many reputable doctors here and in the United States, is the gold standard.
If you receive a positive result, this means you may be able to take advantage of gene therapy, also known as targeted medicine, which involves taking capsules on a daily basis instead of chemotherapy rounds every three weeks. The gene therapy focuses on killing the bad cells caused by the mutation and does not kill both bad and good cells like chemotherapy. From a quality of life perspective, gene therapy opens up a lot of possibilities and basically allows you to manage cancer like a chronic disease like diabetes.