“I will always look on the bright side,” 36-year-old Prachi Kulkarni from Mumbai, now based in Dubai, tells me. At the fag end of a one-hour phone call with her, the major part of which she spends detailing her battle with cancer and its accompanying odds, I am impressed at the positivity she exudes.
There isn’t a doubt, she is a fighter.
Ironically, Prachi’s tryst with the obstinate disease began with her deciding to pay more attention to her health in 2019. As she recounts in a conversation with The Better India, “Wanting to take a step towards a healthier life, I registered for a hike in Kashmir. But the trainer said I would need to be fit enough for the trek, and so I spent the next six months working out, running and building my stamina.”
Not only did she scale the summit, but went on to start her running journey, training for marathons alongside her full-time job as a chef. In December 2019 in Pune, Prachi completed a 21 km run, her first half marathon. While she moved to Dubai post this as part of work, the fitness enthusiast in her was still alive, and by the year 2021, she had seven marathons to boast of.
But before she could attempt the eighth, she had a fall on the road.
‘This was when I discovered a lump in my breast’
Taking a week off from work to recover, Prachi decided to get her blood tests and an overall health checkup done. It was during this time she found the lump.
“They did a biopsy and I underwent surgery in November 2021 to remove the lump, which was later found to be malignant. The next few months were filled with the words — mammograms, CT scans and chemotherapy, and all the while I couldn’t believe I had cancer. I was fit!”
Not only did the chemotherapy sessions cause Prachi to go through an all-time low phase in life, but their repercussions were severe. As a chef, her job necessitated 12-hour shifts, involving standing for the most part of the day. Weakened by the chemo, this was a challenge.
To add to this, she was severely constipated most times, while at other times bouts of diarrhoea meant she couldn’t go out of her apartment in Dubai. “During one visit to the hospital, they discovered I had haemorrhoids. I couldn’t sit or walk. I was miserable.”
She adds, “My tongue looked like an octopus because of all the sores that had erupted. I couldn’t swallow or talk. My fingernails and toenails used to separate from my skin. Things were bad.”
When told she would have to undergo 16 sessions of chemotherapy, she was devastated. But, decided she wouldn’t let a disease defeat her.
‘I would overcome it’
Being a runner, Prachi says, she began to think of her chemo sessions as a marathon. “When running you don’t look at the entire picture, you only look at how much is left to go, at how close to the finish you are.”
“I decided to adopt this approach for my chemotherapy as well. And instead of lying in my apartment, I began short walks.”
However, Prachi soon realised none of the stamina that she had developed through her marathons and fitness, stood by her. “I had to start from scratch.”
Meanwhile, the doctors had diagnosed her with a genetic mutation on the BRCA2 gene — the gene most commonly affected in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer in younger women. To reduce the risk of getting cancer once more, Prachi underwent a bilateral mastectomy and another surgery to remove the seven lymph nodes that had developed. While hope seemed tough those days, Prachi says on her lowest days she would do the ‘Macarena’ to feel better.
“I didn’t even know the words. I would just dance,” she laughs, adding that as a way to commemorate her last chemotherapy session, she danced with the hospital nurses to Govinda’s ‘Kisi Disco Mein Jaaye’.
The battle was finally over, she thought. But alas, it wasn’t.
‘I contracted COVID’
Getting COVID exacerbated every symptom that Prachi was feeling, making her feel miserable. This was around the same time that she was also undergoing radiation for the cancer.
“People don’t understand the gravity of cancer and how the treatments make you feel. Sometimes, I wanted to tell people what I was going through, relay the anxiety I went through while I sat in the room before going in for radiation, express the frustration and sadness and pain that radiation left me with, turning my armpits black and burnt.”
This was when she turned to art as an escape.
“I would draw, I would paint, I would colour. It could be anything right from the boxes of medicines around me, to the feelings I had while going through radiation. I wanted to tell people I wasn’t okay even though I seemed I was.”
In January this year, Prachi had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed surgically, the final crux of a five-year-long journey.
Today, as she looks back at the winding years with all their twists and turns, she says nothing scares her anymore. “I figured life is unpredictable. And so I made up my mind to get back to kickboxing, zumba and walks once again, telling my coaches that if anything happened I would take the responsibility for it.”
When people from the culinary industry would pity her while cautioning her about entering the kitchen again, she decided not to heed them. “How will you stand for such long hours? How will you bear the heat after radiation?”
“It was tough, but I did. What scared me most was that the chemotherapy caused me to lose my sense of taste. Everything tasted like medicine. I was worried if I would ever be able to cook. When I told my husband the irony that as a chef I wouldn’t be able to taste, he said, ‘Do you remember Beethoven, the famous composer and pianist, was deaf?’.”
These words inspired her to persevere.
“Today,” says Prachi, “I am a different person because of cancer. When people complain about minor inconveniences in life, I feel like telling them ‘At least be grateful your body supports you for those small tasks’. When I run or walk or exercise, I think back to those times when I didn’t value it more.”
So, she adds, when people ask her why she is so stubbornly positive, she has her retort ready.
“I will always look on the bright side.”
Edited by Pranita Bhat