Tensile strength

Journalist Ritu Bhatia’s fight against cancer is exemplary and inspirational and demonstrates that public health infrastructure does save lives

Ritu Bhatia, a journalist who has reported extensively on health and wellness for more than two decades, was diagnosed with breast cancer eight months ago. The way she dealt with this serious ailment is exemplary. This condition has revealed her true self to the world. And it’s a pretty picture.

Her mother had breast cancer 25 years ago, so did her aunt (mother’s sister). What was surprising is that her health condition didn’t diminish her spirits one bit, and her steadfastness in the face of a life- threatening challenge became inspirational to many. Her followers mushroomed on social networking sites. What amazed her most was the response of her son, parents, sisters and friends, who were solid as a rock. There was a steady stream of visitors, every day was a party — till the lockdown happened.

Ritu is documenting her tryst against cancer, has already jotted some 100 pages of notes that might culminate into a book, but she doesn’t want to write another ‘my fight against a life threatening disease’ kind of a book. She speaks with conviction, isn’t delusional or in denial, her strength stems from the fact that she has sized up the monster, and holds the bull by the horns.

“Everyone considers me brave and positive but for some reason, these adjectives rankle because they imply an effort which I am really not making. The truth is that my response to my illness is simply an extension of my being. I have always been stoic, rational and largely scientific in my thinking,” she says.

Not that she was expecting it, but it’s also a fact that “the body starts declining in mid-life. Organ function diminishes. Even if you lead a healthy life with exercise, good nutrition, you are going to experience the impact of your body slowdown at some point. Why fight reality or get upset when you are diagnosed with X or Y?”

The illness was first diagnosed in a leading private hospital (she doesn’t want to name it) and subsequently she also consulted another leading private hospital, and all they did was to reinforce “doubt and fear” in her. She went to AIIMS without pulling any strings and secured treatment along with the public at large.

In an atmosphere far from salubrious, to put it mildly, she waited in a queue for long hours in the crowded corridor and waiting areas of AIIMS with people “you’d employ like maids, wife of a gardener”. She loved chatting with them, comforting them, in turn finding solace that she’s not a lone warrior.

For a casual viewer, the atmosphere in the cancer ward of a government hospital is depressing and those who can afford it, pay in lakhs to avoid having to deal with it. Against the advice of her 29-year-old son Ilan and other family members, she was adamant about braving the treatment meted out at public hospitals, though money was not a constraint.

Ritu Bhatia with her son Ilan

Her reason is simple: “faith.” Her doctor was a young, capable leading breast cancer oncologist at AIIMS who from Day 1 “looked in control” unlike his counterparts in private hospitals. The odds were 70-30 against her, and the young doctor, who’s now a friend, asked her, “Ma’am, can you deal with it?” referring to the crowded cancer ward. “No problem,” was her prompt response.

A stickler for cleanliness to the levels of obsession, Ritu willingly underwent chemotherapy in a general ward. On one occasion when she arrived late to the hospital, all beds were taken. The treatment had to be administered on a stretcher parked along the wall in a very busy corridor, all this while—five hours—Ilan had to literally hold the stretcher at its place. Despite the mayhem, the doctors and nurses are very skilled, they deal with more than 400 patients a day. The result is for everyone to see. Ritu is on the path of recovery.

“Since I had my surgery, I’ve been contemplating the amazing capacity of the human body to adapt to almost anything. Cellular damage is rarely permanent. My faith in the wisdom of my own body and its reliance on ‘homeostasis’ – the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between physiological processes has never been stronger…” she puts it succinctly.

Stars can’t shine without darkness. Hair loss does bother her, not all changes are easy to deal with. She describes a woman’s “complex relationship with body hair.” There are many ways to remove unwanted hair, but it’s agonising to lose hair on scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes. “Skin on my legs has never been smoother in my whole life,” she says to assert all changes are not necessarily undesirable.

On multiple occasions she has helped the poor get treatment in government hospitals out of kindness. One of them eventually got a heart transplant. She has earned a lot of goodwill — perhaps that keeps her going. She knows how to keep herself entertained. “My toy pig, Simone, who provided comic relief and comfort, in the time of Corona. The nurses started giggling and nudging each other when they saw her lying beside me on the pillow.”

Apart from Simone, her constant companion is her son Ilan, founder and CEO of Forever Fit. “He’s wonderful,” she explains, ”There’s no nurse available during Covid times. He even drains the fluids every morning. He has seen the stitches.” When boys take care, their feminine side comes to the fore. In fact, it has nothing to do with gender—it’s just a social construct. Indian men don’t shun their boyishness well into their thirties. “Ilan made a great leap forward in  emotional growth,” she adds.

Ritu has done well for herself, her family, and all her friends and admirers, for, as she puts it, “I’m aware.”

(Cover: The way Ritu Bhatia dealt with cancer is exemplary)

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