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EXCLUSIVE

Dear Life…

Author: admin

Inspirational speaker and counsellor Neerja Malik has survived cancer (twice) and is thriving after the disease, while helping others do the same

 
It was pouring in Chennai and it looked like our interview with Neerja Malik would have to be shelved. But, in a few moments, just like that, a ray of sunshine came piercing through the dark clouds, rekindling hope that we would meet. It was clearly a sign.

Malik, a name familiar in Chennai circles for being the life of many a party, has survived cancer not once but twice. Between two cups of tea and many a biscuit, Malik takes us on a roller-coaster ride: her life. While living life to the fullest, publishing books and counselling cancer patients and survivors, Malik is also working to dispel the fear built around cancer.

In signature style, she starts our interview on a sunny note. “I love good food. I can’t help it, I was born on a dining table,” she says, alluding to her birth in her family’s home in Srinagar. The spunky 63 year-old is in a mischievous mood, as her photographic memory pulls out cherished anecdotes of secretly jumping through a hole in the wall to take a shortcut to school, adventurous escapades with her aunts and cousins, and enjoying cross-country racing, horse racing and even ice skating as a young girl.

But behind her infectious smile and sense of humour is a woman whose never-say-die attitude is the raft that keeps her spirit afloat. Amazingly, her battle with cancer has never been only about herself. Malik uses her own experiences to inspire other cancer survivors, becoming their pillar when they lose hope and their beacon when they need someone to point the way.

“I think there is a method in His [divine] madness, my degree in social work, surviving cancer and eventually counselling patients with my gift of the gab. It was His plan all along,” says Malik, who was raised in Mumbai, where she acquired a bachelor’s degree in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, followed by a BEd degree, and then worked as a social worker with Diamond Jubilee High School.

Malik got married in 1978 in Mumbai and moved to Chennai when her husband’s work took them there in the late 1980s. As if to inure her to the most daunting challenge of her life, she was given her share of tough times. “I had a couple of miscarriages, a stillborn child and a near-death experience after the birth of my twins in 1990,” she shares. “Back then, I had very high fever that doctors feared would lead to something fatal, and the nurses borrowed slabs of ice from a nearby hotel to bring down the fever.”

Then, on 13 February 1998, Malik faced her next gut-wrenching test—she detected a small lump in her left breast. She decided to check it out at Apollo Hospital in Chennai, and her oncologist delivered the verdict: cancer. In complete shock, Malik cried her heart out but quickly gathered herself. She had to survive and stay strong for her children, who were luckily too small to understand the trauma.

Malik left her kids with their father and travelled to Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital for treatment. She had told them she would be back on their birthday. “The chemo was very painful. I had to sit on the edge of my bed as it would hurt to even rest my back,” she remembers. But Malik is a woman of her word; after bouts of unbearable nausea and losing chunks of hair, she was back home in time to celebrate her children’s birthday.

By now, Malik knew it was mind over matter and she would have to fight any disease and pain to be with her precious children. A few months later, her uncle asked her to help an acquaintance who had been diagnosed with lymphoma. When she met him, the man was just sitting there, shoulders slumped, as his wife wept into her dupatta. “I met him at the hospital and shared my experience and told him how the doctors had given me a 25 per cent chance of survival but here I was. I told him if I could do it, so could he,” she recalls. “An hour later, he was all calm; I knew he was all set.”

When Malik stepped out, the hospital staff noted down her phone number and asked if she could talk to their other patients, and she agreed. It wasn’t long before the trickle of patients became a steady stream and, soon, she was a regular at Apollo Specialty Hospital, counselling cancer patients in the recovery room.

Somehow, the patients felt calmer after listening to Malik. They knew she understood what they were going through, and the fact that she conquered the disease strengthened their resolve to take on the odds. She volunteered at Apollo Hospital for many years before she eventually became a consultant counsellor. Currently, she counsels patients at her home on a voluntary basis, while also visiting various hospitals to be with patients during treatment.

On 8 March 2004, Malik set up a cancer support group with 20 other survivors. Only four of the original group survived, something that was traumatic for many. But that didn’t deter Malik as she signed in more volunteers and continued to counsel patients and caretakers. Sometimes, Malik even helps with the financial needs of poor patients, as and when the need arises.

In November that year, eight months after she set up the support group, the cancer returned, this time in Malik’s right breast. But the gritty lady was determined not to let it upset her plans for the day. The day the lump was detected, she went ahead with her plans to watch Mughal-E-Azam with her friends. She was confident the cancer could wait for a day!

While her children prepped for their board exams, Malik calmly travelled to Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital for treatment, for the second time in her life; she didn’t want to disturb their studies. She underwent two lumpectomies and was counselling another cancer patient on the phone and asked the husband if his wife needed a different counsellor to be with her the next day. When he replied that they would love to have her, she laughed and said, “I am still in the recovery room after my own treatment.”

Malik says she is now cancer-free and visits the oncologist only for follow-ups. “I tell my patients only three things: One, cancer is just a word and it is only we who burden it with emotions. Two, think of the disease as a slight detour on the journey towards your goals. Three, laughter is the best medicine. There’s this famous case where a patient diagnosed with cancer binge-watched comedy movies for three nights and laughed so much that his cancer disappeared.” She adds, “Death is inevitable; I just want patients to believe they have a chance at life.”

Having lived many lives in this one lifetime, Malik penned her experiences with the help of a friend and launched her first book, I Inspire, published by Jaico Publishers, in September 2015. The book, her journey to discover 10 different treasures in life, has received rave reviews from a wide audience, from students to cancer survivors. It’s inspirational, funny, lively and profound—just like Malik herself.

Fondly called ‘Chemo Angel’, she has extended her calling and started delivering inspirational speeches at various forums, attending charity events (she’s the brand ambassador for Pinkathon, India’s biggest women’s run for breast cancer awareness) and has a full calendar. But that doesn’t stop her from doing the things she loves, from riding in hot-air balloons and taking Zumba lessons to running marathons. Being an active member of Bikes on Babes, a Chennai-based fitness club for women, she regularly cycles and recently did up to 40 km on her motorcycle.

Clearly, there’s no stopping Malik. Currently, she’s is busy prepping for her second book—her personal journey of handholding a patient, from diagnosis to treatment. For our part, we hope she continues to touch lives and spread sunshine through the darkest of clouds.

— Catherine Gilon

December 2017