I looked down as I put on my lehenga, a traditional Indian wedding dress, and suppressed a thought that my body wouldn't look the same in six months’ time. My chemo tablet was lined up alongside my Chanel Coco Mademoiselle products, I swallowed it down before slathering my body in my signature scent. As I combed my hair, clumps of it came out. It wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined it, but a tumour won’t stop growing because you’re busy, and it didn't stop for my wedding either.
It was one night three years ago that changed everything. I could see the rain dripping down the windows outside, as I lay feeling content on the sofa. The hum of Netflix on the TV in the background, my wedding in three months’ time. I felt nothing but excitement about my future. I was 29, I’d been travelling with work for weeks – I was an area manager for a beauty company at the time – and it felt so good to finally be at home.
I have two sausage dogs and, for once, they didn’t want to go for a walk. Instead they jumped up onto my chest for a snuggle, but as they did, I felt something niggle in my boob. It’s hard to explain exactly what it felt like, but I had this gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It’s incredible looking back, how everything can change in one moment, like your entire life pivots in an instance.
I jumped up, cupping my breasts in my hands, comparing them to each other. I could feel something firm that I could wrap my fingers around in my right breast. I have large boobs and have always had lumps in them, but this was different. It felt as though it shouldn’t be there. I called my fiancé to come and check, he said I needed to see my GP as he could feel it too and was worried.
I made an appointment for a few weeks later where my GP examined me and referred me to a specialist – I just thought they were being cautious. I had to wait a couple of weeks before the appointment and during that time I could see the lump growing. Looking in the mirror, even with my bra on, I could see the right side of my chest was so much bigger. But it wasn’t just my boobs that felt heavy – there was a weight on my mind, on my shoulders, pressing down on me.
What followed was many appointments, an ultrasound, three biopsies – which involved taking a sample of body tissue – and a mammogram. It was a lot to process.
Finally, about a month after that rainy night, I saw a consultant. I’m always so positive, and I said to him, "Oh it’s nothing right? Just a cyst?" He had to be strict with me, so I got a realistic view of what was wrong. I’d been trying to trick myself that everything was okay. "Look Nisha," he said seriously, "there’s something there, we don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely something."
The world "definitely" hung in the air – it was black and white. With hindsight, he must have known it was cancer.
A couple of weeks later, I was sitting back in that same room being diagnosed with grade three breast cancer that had also spread to my lymph nodes. Stage 3 meant that it was the fastest growing kind of cancer. "What about my wedding?" I pleaded to the consultant, who didn’t know I was supposed to be getting married, then going off on the honeymoon of a lifetime: Hawaii, LA and San Francisco. He said we should cancel it, but my fiancé was adamant he wanted it to go ahead so we decided to scale it down instead.
A few months later, on the morning of our wedding, my bridesmaids and I were all sitting around the wooden dining table in my family home getting ready. Usually I’m loud, but I sat quietly.
"How was your appointment?" one of them asked, knowing that I’d seen my consultant the day before. "It was fine," I whispered. I couldn’t tell them that I’d found out I have the BRCA1 gene, which means the cancer is hereditary, there’s a higher chance of it recurring and that I needed to have a double mastectomy – involving the removal of breast tissue, the areola and my nipples – as it was my best chance of recovery.
It had been the thought of this day getting me through, I didn’t want to cloud it with talk of cancer, I was determined to enjoy every moment. I’ll never forget my husband’s speech, the room fell silent as I clung on to my glass of fizz, the gravity of the day of the day hit us as he thanked everyone from the bottom of his heart for being there.
Looking back, I was going through the motions, ticking off each treatment to get to that end point. Chemo, done, then onto surgery, then radiotherapy. It’s surreal to think that I spent my 30th birthday sitting around a table eating dinner with my family and friends, then two days later, I was lying on an operating table having a double mastectomy.
In the bathroom at the hospital, I unbuttoned my hospital gown to see all the bandages, it didn’t feel like me. Everything was sore and swollen and when I plucked up the courage to look down, it wasn’t the view I’ve known since I was a teenager. I started at my face in the reflection, the girl who was fearless had been replaced. My husband took a photograph of me lying in the hospital bed, but I couldn’t look at it for ages, my boobs looked smaller and flatter. I’ve lived my life with a big chest and that is usually the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning.
Some women opt to go completely flat, but I went with a reconstruction. I hope to live a long life and I want to feel confident in that life. But my breasts will never be quite the same again.
My right breast, where the tumour was, is a lot smaller than my left. This illness has taken so many parts of me, stripped me of my body and my energy. Psychologically, it’s a huge adjustment. I still grieve for the body parts I’ve lost. I’ll put on a top or a dress and it doesn’t quite fit the way it used to. My breasts were a big part of my identity, they made me feel powerful. There’s times it is hard to go out, especially when it’s a special occasion and I need to get dressed up.
I’ve had three lots of surgery in three years and another coming in December this year. I feel like I am always prepping or recovering. Each time, it feels like a little part of me disappears. Although the choice wasn’t mine, I’ve learnt to live with it, and to love myself again. I never used to worry about what other people thought of me, but now I think they compare me: like before and after. On the plus side, I’ve bought a whole new wardrobe and it has allowed me to experiment.
T-shirts used to look rubbish on me and now I love a slogan tee. Physically, I couldn’t go on the honeymoon we’d planned, but we did end up going to NYC instead. On the plane there, I wore a tee that said “Honey”, and I felt so cute with my cropped hair and a bold red lip.
I'm Sikh and Indian, illness isn’t openly talked about in my culture, but I want to change that by telling my story. When you think of breast cancer, you often think of older women, but I was 29 when I was diagnosed, and I wished I’d known then that cancer can happen at any age. I want to inspire young women, especially from south Asian backgrounds, to check their boobs. Everyone always thinks it’s never going to happen to them, I thought that too and then it did.
At that very first appointment in 2018, I asked where I would be in a year’s time, and they couldn’t tell me. And although the cancer is gone, I am still young, so there’s a chance it will come back. It’s a very real and constant worry, but I know that I can’t live in fear. That feeling is something I have learnt to live alongside. I always think tomorrow is a new day. I take a deep breath, feeling the air in my lungs and remember: I am here.
Breast Cancer Now’s 'Younger Women Together Online' offers women aged up to 45 the chance to connect with others and hear from experts. Sign up here.
You Might Also Like