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3 months ago
World Cancer Day: Manisha Koirala tells us how not to talk to a patient

Manisha Koirala’s Twitter timeline is full of tweets on healthy food and lifestyle habits. You will notice how she pays attention to the little things in life, like discovering a squirrel’s nest in her garden, or how she lies on the grass and looks up at the sky, just like that, after a seven-hour 24-km trek.

The recipient of four Filmfare Awards made her Bollywood debut with the box office grosser, Saudagar (1991), and went on to win people’s heart with films such as 1942: A Love Story (1994), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), Agni Sakshi (1996), and Bombay (1995).

Then, in 2012, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, for which she underwent a gruelling treatment for six months in USA. Since 2015, she has been completely free of the deadly disease, and returned to work with films like Dear Maya (2017) and Rajkumar Hirani’s upcoming Sanju, based on the life of Sanjay Dutt, whose actress-mother Nargis Dutt she plays.

In a heart to heart chat, Manisha tells us how cancer is loosely used in conversations at parties, and about the ignorance and insensitivity surrounding the disease.

How does one talk to a person diagnosed with cancer? And what does one say to him/her?

After being diagnosed with cancer, one is in a lot of fear and anxiety about the anticipated pain and the painful treatment. In such a situation, people are somewhat unaware that their (insensitive/hurtful) remarks can stay in the patient’s mind for a long time. The family and society’s support towards the patient are very important. There are so many things you say if you are uneducated, say like, pointing your finger at the patient and saying: ‘It could be your karma’ and all.

Unfortunately, many people are driven by certain wrong notions, and it becomes extremely painful for the patient. You’re adding more misery to a person who is already sad and upset. Many times, in a family setup in our part of the world, people show concern by hovering around and giving unsolicited advice. I would really request them to refrain from doing that.

Cancer is something that doctors take years to study and understand. So we should let the doctors do their work. The best thing a person could ask is: ‘How can I be of help? If you need anything from me, please do not hesitate, I am around,’ — rather than advising or suggesting this and that and confusing someone who is already not in a great emotional state.

I remember at various points of my treatment, I needed different things from different people. There are times when one is conscious of not being a burden to others. Lisa Ray actually told me, “Manisha please ask for help because sometimes people are really kind and ready to help, they just don’t know how to.”

So I started doing that. It’s not that a patient is always looking for financial support. Just being there and letting them know that you care and you’re there for them, is enough.

In trying to make conversation, were there some things which people told you that were inappropriate? What is the one thing which they should do?

There are times when people were suggesting (before I went to New York) that I didn’t even have cancer. The lesser the number of people around the better. People come with their own notions and ignorant points of view.

How did cancer change you as a person?

Cancer changes people. There is a dagger over your head for a long period of time, which you do not know when it’s going to fall on you. You do not know if that long treatment, of a minimum of six months, will get you out of the tunnel, and you’ll be fine and healed. You don’t know that. If one knew that I’ll be fine at the end of this gruesome treatment, it would better. But with cancer patients, there is always the uncertainty. We do not know whether we are going to be cancer-free or whether it would reoccur or not.

This prolonged period of uncertainty is the catalyst in transforming people and it is unlike other diseases which you undergo. For example, you undergo a heart surgery and you’re fine; so it’s different. There is a physical angle to it since you are in pain and you look quite sad and pathetic because your eyebrows and hair are all gone.

When I came out at the other end, if there was anything joyful, I would make the most of that moment. I literally started seeing joy in small things like walking on the grass, the breeze on my face, looking out of my bed at the sky and clouds, sunsets and sunrises — I started noticing small things, because tomorrow I didn’t know whether I would be alive to see it.

Manisha with a friend. (Manisha Koirala’s Instagram)

My next 1 week early morning project #dance #bollywoodmusic

A post shared by Manisha Koirala (@m_koirala) on

When you come out at the other end, you start to appreciate everything — people, work, your life. But with us, what happens is, the longer you live, slowly that fear fades away and we change to a large extent. But I really believe we need to remember all the lessons of life, otherwise we might go back to being complacent, being ungrateful; basically, go back to where we were before.

Looking back, what kept you going? Did you lose hope at any point? Did the chemotherapy process make you feel like giving up at any point?

I did. But I had my mother; she would be crying in the other room but not when she was with me. I was in agony one day and my bones were hurting very bad. Even the painkillers could not stop the pain. I told my mom I really can’t go through this, and if by being alive, I have to endure this kind of pain, I’d rather die. She really scolded me and said: “If you are in our lives, if anything happens to you…” (trails off)

She really put sense into me. My mom, dad and brother were by my side.

With her mother. (Manisha Koirala’s Instagram)

Does it get sort of clichéd that when you’re at a social gathering where people would suddenly bring up the cancer topic and expect you to talk about it?

When I see some people who haven’t gone through the depth of issues and pain and (can’t) understand it, they’re very shallowly lurking over their wealth and glories, and want to make cancer the entertaining topic of conversation for the evening. If I get a little hint of that, I politely excuse myself and walk away or just change the topic.

But there are people who want to understand, and if I feel I am in a place where it’s good for me to talk about it, then I will share the story or share my experiences. But if it’s becoming one of those social, ‘Oh we don’t know what better to talk about’ situations, then I’m really not game for that.

What is your post-cancer diet?

I have become very careful, though I have cheat days. I don’t have sugar and try to avoid it as much as possible. At home, I don’t have it at all. Sometimes, when I’m travelling, when there’s nothing like gur (jaggery), I indulge in a sweet.

Morning selfie! (Manisha Koirala’s Instagram)

Sugar is a trigger and I was told to be mindful of how much sugar I take. There are better options such as natural sweeteners like sevia, honey, gur, etc.

I have recently started eating fish. I’m a ‘fishetrian’; I don’t eat meat. My mom was feeding me paaya soup for strength during my treatment and I had decided that once my treatment is over, I will become a vegetarian because during treatment, I had started disliking non-veg. For a long time, I was a vegetarian, but just recently I have started eating fish and eggs. But I am very mindful of that also and take very little.

I eat more of fresh fruits, vegetables, a lot of greens, broccoli and palak (spinach) is a must in all my meals. I try and eat less of white rice. I sometimes eat red rice and quinoa. If I’m eating carbs, then there needs to be a lot of fibre in it.

I am a foodie but my antennas are always up regarding the healthy and nutritional values of food. I cannot digest too much junk food. I just have it once in a blue moon.

Did you interact with any children who were also getting treated at the hospitals?

I met children at the Tata Memorial Hospital, and the doctors were looking after them very well. The rooms were very well painted. The children are going through a painful time but the environment is good.

At another centre, I met a few parents and they were talking about incidents where other children have disconnected with their kids and other families have abandoned them because they think cancer is something ‘jo choonei sei ho jata hai’ (that will spread by touching).

They’ve been excluded from society and from playing games. But I’ve seen that when the mothers and parents are strong, then the child is less affected. A child draws strength from the parents. If the parents are troubled and weak, it will probably hurt the children more than what society could do. I would really request the parents to be mindful of that.

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