It first revealed itself on my toenails: a yellowish-brown colour that would have gone unnoticed had it not been spotted during the pandemic isolation when I had some time to relax and take care of myself. I tried using lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to wash it away. But it was back to haunt me the very next day, this time with lines that made my nails brittle.

However, what made me schedule a consultation with my doctor was when I noticed that a 20-year-old scar from a [benign] lump extraction near my right armpit had begun to change shape.

A series of examinations and tests later, I was given the news. I still remember standing at the doctor’s office clutching a report that had the words ‘95% malignancy’ imprinted in it.

My first thoughts when I received the news were of my parents and my son – how would I break this news to them?

I don’t remember how I drove back home from the hospital but all along I was bracing to accept the fact that there was a new war I, at age 48, had to fight – a battle against Breast Cancer.

From India to Dubai

Growing up, my parents always ensured they provided me with the best. A tomboy, I enjoyed participating in a variety of activities; I even participated in the Indian Republic Day parade in 1993, the same year I also received John Major’s Medal of Excellence.

I was keen to pursue a career in law, and did very well in college in Karnataka – I have around 180 certificates of achievement.

Even before I completed my course, I got an offer to work at a respected law firm in Bangalore called Singhania and Associates. Life was good – I was earning well, successful in my career and handling major clients.

At around this time, my parents decided it was time for me to get married and found a groom who was based in Dubai.

Geethalakshmi during her early years in Dubai
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However, my marital life was not a happy one but rather than complain and return to my parents, I decided to find a solution to the problems and take charge of my life.

Juggling three jobs

I began my hustle – working three jobs doing data entry for small companies to earn more. In between all this, I also had a miscarriage.

In 1999, I landed a job with a major law firm in Dubai, but had to quit the next year after I was pregnant with my son; I wanted to return to India for my delivery.

A year later, I returned to Dubai with my son and was lucky to get my job back.

In 2005, I decided to strike out on my own, and Associated Business Attorneys (ABA) Management Consultants was born. During these years, my marital life began to worsen and in October 2012, thanks to the support of my local lawyer friends and my family, I decided to walk out of the abusive marriage. In a record 17 days, the Dubai Court granted me a divorce.

Coping with the stress

Looking back, I think all the nights I spent crying over my divorce were actually adding to another boiling pot – stress. I strongly believe that this stress contributed to my cancer.

I have always been passionate about sports and had represented Karnataka in badminton, hockey, and table tennis. By extension, I have always been careful about my eating habits, avoiding binge eating and trying my best to maintain my ideal weight. Perhaps these were reasons the idea of undergoing regular screenings didn’t occur to me.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was already at the end of Stage 2 and proceeding into Stage 3. I still cannot believe my body did not reveal any signs until stage 3.

Once treatment began, the physical side effects were plenty. My nails turned black and to cover them up, I began using gloves.

Due to the radiation therapy, my upper body turned black; it was so scary. I also began experiencing at various times constipation, diarrhoea, and acid reflux.

Pain was a constant companion – my ears, throat, and oesophagus were all hurting, I struggled to swallow, drink or talk. My voice started breaking, permanently becoming one with a pitch lower.

When your body and mind are undergoing such changes, it’s easy for your self-esteem to get affected, but I am a person who always embraced change.

During my treatment, there were times when I cried because of the pain, but never out of circumstance. I never once shed a tear wondering ‘Why Me?’

My philosophy for life itself changed after this incident. I find all these difficulties to be passing clouds – they will never remain with you forever.

Geethalakshmi with Indian badminton player Srikanth Kidambi
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Even when I fell sick, I felt God was holding my hand and guiding me through the whole endeavour. I owe it all to my doctors, colleagues and my friends. Not one day did my colleagues make me feel that my absence would negatively affect the company. My doctors were extremely supportive – helping me stay cheerful, engaging me in various intelligent discussions. Dr Shivaprakash used to tell me: "We have a solution for everything" – words that I took great comfort in.

My clients were phenomenal too. All of them. They were so accommodating of any delays on my side. My retainers continued. Payments that would usually take three to four weeks, took only two to three days during my chemo. Friends and colleagues here at DIP where I live and in Qusais where my office is located, would fight to drop me to chemo sessions!

The support groups

I also had a wonderful ‘Geetha support group’ of 13-14 women from around the world. English, Lebanese, Spanish, Indian, Chilean, Bolivian, Belgian, Mexican, and American women. Phenomenal women. They would drop by to leave casseroles, or just to talk. Some of them were even sweet enough to massage my feet. My domestic help Jayanthi, was my left hand throughout all this. I was also fortunate enough to have two doctors as my neighbours who would spend time with me in the evening playing board games or just discussing various topics under the sun.

In a way, Covid was a blessing. Hygiene has become a priority, which helps breast cancer patients. Infections are our biggest enemy since our immunity is so low.

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I also feel people have developed more compassion during these times. Since they have had to spend more time at home, many have had the time to reach out to me, check on me. If it wasn’t for them, I might have gone into depression because nobody would have been able to be there – I am a people person and I thrive on conversations.

I also found the time to keep myself busy – the kitchen became my ‘me’ space. I was constantly experimenting with new recipes, photos of which would make my friends especially hungry. I delved into pickling, soap making, and painting.

I started my own organic garden that is currently nursing baby watermelons. I also grow aloe vera, mangoes, red guavas, two date palms, and two coconut trees named Ravi and Shankar – my pride and joy.

Geethalakshmi enjoys the festival of Holi with friends
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I started designing – remodelling my courtyard to add a Buddha fountain to look out at as I lay in my bedroom while resting from the chemo.

To accommodate my joy of cooking, I added a grill area with matkas (earthen pots), hoping to enjoy a cookout when the weather permits. My son and I also converted our car garage into a gym – we can’t let sports away just because I have cancer.

Respond, don’t react

I strongly believe that you give what you get. We all must practice the ‘Art of Giving’. As someone who loves to give, I think my good karma helped me get through this in one piece.

My life has found a new mantra – Respond, don’t react. When you are reacting, you aren’t considering what is coming out of you mouth. We react in the spur of the moment. As a result, there are times when we find ourselves thinking, "I could have done it this way instead!" And that is when regret takes over… that is when our self-esteem is affected. But when we don’t react and instead focus on responding. Our self-esteem is still intact.

The pain is terrible

My doctor calls my cancer ‘Good Cancer’ – the type that can be cured. Although I am in terrible pain these days, I just bite my teeth, eagerly waiting for this to end. I’m looking forward to getting the all-clear soon.

Once I’m done with my treatment, I want to embrace my second life. I want to think of new ideas for my company, go hiking, learn kickboxing even!

I purchased the Expo 2020 Dubai season pass way back in March, I can’t wait to go explore. My goal is to visit as many pavilions as I can.

Firstly, please do your screenings often. Had I done my screening on time, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone through all this. What stops us from going for screenings? A great buildup of fear. But to overcome this fear of the unknown, we must first face it. Always remember that Pink month is a great initiative meant to support us.

Geethalakshmi with her family during a Christmas celebration
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Secondly, there is no need at all to stress. There is so much negativity surrounding us that we can get absorbed into it so easily, which adds to our stress. We must learn to take things easy. We don’t have to react, we have to respond! Once we take that kind of time to respond, we begin to think if this situation really deserves a response, and that moment is so empowering.

Thirdly, the lesson that Covid-19 taught us all – need to slow down. There is no need to race like this, to have it all. The stress in our lifestyle or thought process gives us unwanted burdens. As a result, negative cells in our system increase, which can take over our entire body. Today, if two or three parrots visit my house and squawk back at me, or if a flower blooms in my garden, I feel so happy – the true essence of life is really about embracing the small joys.

Most importantly, take care of yourself first. If you don’t take care of yourself, how will the house that you give life to prosper?

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