She’s written eight books (some of them bestsellers), and is a motivational speaker and life skills coach. Yet, it’s perhaps as a cancer crusader (or ‘cancer beater’ as she liked to call herself) that Neelam Kumar is best known. Having fought the disease twice, Kumar thought she’d be able to help others who were grappling with it too. However, Kumar was clear that she wanted to bring a different perspective to the discourse on cancer – the accounts of survivors who had successfully dealt with the ‘emperor of maladies’ and continued to lead joyous lives. The result – a book called To Cancer With Love – was an instant bestseller. This month, a graphic novel adaptation of the same title hits the stands.
Kumar grew up in Russia; her parents were writers stationed there by the Indian Embassy in Moscow, to help translate works of Russian literature into Hindi and English. She describes an idyllic childhood, one spent learning from nature rather than books. She would try to bring some of those experiences to her own students at RN Podar School (where she works as a life skills teacher).
After six years in the Soviet Republic, Kumar and her family had returned home – it wasn’t an easy transition, to say the least.
“That was the most transformational experience I ever had,” she recounts. “In Russia I felt I was a star, as did the other boys and girls there; we were always made to feel very special. So when I was thrust into the Indian educational system – In a convent school, where everyone was speaking a strange language (English) that I couldn’t understand – I quickly became a clown to the whole school.” A particularly harsh remark from one of the nuns at the school (she described Neelam as ‘dumb’) led to much emotional distress. That was when Kumar’s father told her something she never forgot: ‘That life always gives you a choice, and it is up to you to exert that choice.’
Kumar realised she could take control over her life; she could learn English, and prove the nun and her peers wrong. She scored 33 percent in one of her exams and finally passed (she wryly adds that maybe the teachers just gave her grace marks, tired as they were of seeing her as one of the fixtures in the classroom – ‘the tables, the chairs, and Neelam!’).
Amid this struggle, something wonderful happened – Kumar fell in love with the English language. She announced to her surprised mother that she would study English literature once she passed out of school.
“I fell in love with Byron, Shakespeare, Wordsworth,” Kumar recounts. “I had this cocktail of English and Russian words dancing in my head, and I began dashing off these strangely-worded short stories, and to my delight, my first piece won an award. I loved to see my byline, and thought I wanted to be a writer. But then I realised that a writer must have a ‘side job’ to fund their livelihood. So I went on to educate myself [Kumar has a Master’s degree in Journalism, another post-grad degree in PR and Advertising, a Bachelor’s in Education, and a grad degree in English Literature] and joined SAIL – and all this time I was busy writing. Once that bug bit me, it didn’t let go.”
Also of immense value was her (late) husband’s support. It was he who declared – on receiving a love letter then 19-year-old Neelam wrote him – that she might pursue a career as a writer. Years later, he would convince her to apply for a journalism programme and scholarship.
“Getting the scholarship meant leaving everything I had here and going off to the US. I said, ‘I can’t do it. I have two small children’,” Kumar remembers. “Now I don’t know of too many husbands back in the ‘80s who’d do this, but my husband said, ‘I’ll look after the kids. You chase your dreams’.” Kumar aced her course and got a great job. Tragedy struck just as her husband and children were to join her in the US as well: Raju (Kumar’s husband) passed away suddenly, in 1995.
“That was a huge setback, emotionally... But now when I look back, I think he was a man in a hurry; he wanted to prepare me, equip me with all the degrees and with all the strength that he could give me in the few years we were together,” she says.
A year after her husband’s death, Kumar was diagnosed with breast cancer. From detection to chemotherapy, what helped her stay undaunted were a positive attitude – and her writing. “When I got cancer for the first time in 1996, I was frightened. The very first question I had was, ‘Why me?’ I worried that my children would become orphans. But I believe sometimes being frightened is a good thing because you do things you wouldn’t have otherwise. Also, at the same time, I was introduced to Buddhist philosophy, and it gave me courage, compassion and strength.”
When she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, Kumar was better prepared, mentally. “I knew I would come out of it,” she says. When going through chemotherapy, she’d been looking for books that might cheer her up. This was a tough task as most of the ‘inspiring’ literature out there, or even films, showed the protagonist dying. “I had absolutely no intention of dying,” Kumar informs us. “That’s also when I decided that my life would now be devoted to a cause larger than the materialistic human body (I) lived in.” To Cancer With Love was born from that experience.
The National Cancer Registry found that breast cancer is the biggest killer of women in India, as reported in this Times of India story dated 4 February 2017. “Breast cancer accounts for 27 percent of all cancers in women in India, with the incidence rising in the early 30s and peaking at ages 50-64 years. It is estimated that 1 in 28 women is likely to develop breast cancer during her lifetime,” the TOI report adds.
Kumar says behind these statistics is the way women are treated at home and the taboos associated with female body parts. “There are many reasons — shyness, ignorance, going in late for treatment, ignoring symptoms etc (that exacerbate women’s health issues). What happens in the case of breast cancer is that the women feel they come last in the family hierarchy. First of all, nobody talks about the breasts and when they do they are too shy to discuss it articulately. When they discover that there is a lump and that maybe it is something to be concerned about, first the shyness comes in, second, they hold their husband’s tour, children’s exams, and everything else over their health – what we Indians love to label as ‘sacrifice’.”
“Please stop glorifying sacrifice as an Indian woman’s virtue,” says Kumar, emphatically. “And let’s stop considering the breasts as ornaments and rather as parts of the anatomy that can require medical treatment. Why push it under the carpet? We need to completely deglamorise, demystify and demonetise the breasts.”
Updated Date: Dec 05, 2017 14:23 PM