Chhavi Mittal does not believe in taking a weekend off like any other content creator who has a Monday morning deadline to meet. He is busy instructing his staff and fixing papers in the middle of our calls. Over the past few days, you’ve seen the actor-producer open up about his battle with breast cancer through a series of Instagram posts, aimed at creating awareness and helping affected women deal with their condition.
But behind the inspiring story of his recovery lies a tale of emotions and pain. And, of course, teeth-gritting patience. But above all else is the story of an ordinary man who is determined to regain normalcy with some extraordinary will. “It’s not cancer, it’s a battle of the minds.”
‘I’m a textbook case of fitness, I still get it’
I was diagnosed by accident. I had pulled a muscle in my chest while working out at the gym and was advised an MRI scan to understand the nature of the muscle strain. That’s when they found a tumor in my other breast and insisted that I have a biopsy just to be sure. I was in two minds because there was no pain, no other symptoms and I had never felt fitter in my life. I ruled out the possibility because by then, I had ticked all the boxes, breastfed my babies, got my routine tests on time, slept and woke up on time, ate right, and never left the gym. I had no family history of cancer.
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Unsurprisingly, I had hosted a webinar on breast cancer a fortnight before diagnosis and was well aware of self-examination protocols or changes in the breast. I didn’t have anything. Still, out of professional respect for the doctor, I did the biopsy.
So, when the result came, it was unbelievable but I didn’t panic. I am made that way, I stay calm in times of crisis but will fret over the smallest mistake in my children’s lives. I took a day to process the information, and told my husband, mother, and a few close people. Since it was Stage II, Grade I, I was advised for immediate surgery. Based on the histopathology report, the surgeon said that we can avoid chemotherapy and since my cancer was slow growing, gave me a fortnight to prepare. I completed all my commitments within that time and I read about my position to prepare myself and get informed. As long as I was on the operating table, I believed I could take the cancer out of my body forever. I remembered how the surgeon at the OT told me to rest, to which I replied, “I’m going to sleep, are you comfortable enough?” And everyone laughed.
My surgery lasted seven hours as there were multiple procedures to remove the deep roots and they had to remove a part of my muscle. Then I was recommended 20 sessions of radiotherapy over six weeks. Immediately after the surgery, I had severe pain in the armpits and breast. Because of this my movement was restricted, I had extreme difficulty lying down or dragging myself to the bathroom. Also, I had a liquid drainage bag and could go home with that contraceptive but I decided to stay in the hospital for seven days with it. I was connected to IV lines and the frequent clotting, flushing and finding new veins for a fresh canal became so painful that I cried out loud. My limbs were swollen and tender, causing additional pain.
Physiotherapy is important after any surgical procedure and in my case, it was important to do it regularly in the first few days so that my affected muscles and nerves can not only recover faster but also re-learn their old movement and flexibility. Since a part of my muscle was pulled out, this part had to be “told” to respond to neural responses. This phase was excruciatingly painful for me as I had to do it two or three times a day but I was determined to keep my body moving as before.
the long road called radiotherapy
This therapy involves directing high-energy beams such as X-rays or protons to kill remaining cancer cells around the operated area. Everyone responds differently to radiotherapy and I was asked to pay attention to breast swelling or discoloration. There was no burning but I felt tired. I experienced swelling and tenderness. The radiologist told me to wear fitted clothes and my body felt very tight. There was confusion about what to wear. My regular undergarments wouldn’t fit and I had to find some big tops that could effectively cover my chest area and prevent the associated damage. The day I used to go for shooting, the swelling used to increase and I used to dolo in the evening with an ice pack.
The worst thing about radiation was holding your breath to make sure your heart and lungs were not affected. The moment I let out my breath, the device would sense it and shut down. So, I learned to hold my breath for 10 to 32 seconds. Radiation usually lasts 10 to 15 minutes but less breathing means prolonging the process. I created my own counting process, chanting “Mississippi 1, Mississippi 2…”, I always carried someone along during these sessions to keep my rhythm. And during one of these sessions, my actor-friend Pooja Gore suggested changing my mantra to “Mrs. Hippie 1”. We had a good laugh and the session turned out to be bearable.
During these sessions I noticed that some of the survivors had marked themselves with tattoos, which indicated the place where the bodies would be aligned in position. I just want to tell everyone that you should ask your doctor for alternatives. I had marker stickers to show my position. You don’t need a tattoo.
How do I find my familiar anchors
I returned to the office within seven days of being discharged. Getting familiar helped me get back to normal even before I knew it. By immersing myself in work, I learned to pay attention to myself. But this time I would listen to my body and take rest in between. I never push myself. In fact, the sooner we get back to life as we knew it, the better it is for healing and your willpower.
I attribute much of my recovery to my mother, who had come from Delhi to manage the domestic front, and my husband Mohit, who did not leave me for a minute during the seven days in the hospital. He even set up my laptop so that I could relieve myself of all the pain. Although my son is very young, my nine year old daughter handled it in a mature manner. I told him that they would make me smaller than him when he bites me to get him out of his stomach. And I’ll be back home in no time. So I stayed in the hospital for seven days because I didn’t want my children to see me in pain or hear my screams. Of course, I had some friends who always came to the hospital with home cooked food.
my activities now
I am not 100% fit right now. But I have gone back to exercise. I am now allowed to lift 5kg and I was a heavy lifter. I go for regular walks in the morning and evening. I can’t do calisthenics, push-ups and pull-ups for a while. It took me three years to master pull-ups after my son was born. It will take time to get there, certainly more than six months. But I’m good
how i made up my mind
I told myself that I would survive cancer, I just had to beat the side effects. I express my gratitude to the universe and count my blessings that I found a reason to get myself tested at the right time, that I could have my breasts and survived chemotherapy. Most cancers are curable but the healing journey is entirely up to you, not the doctor or the disease. I always give positive vibes to my body, say after three months, I can’t even remember the pain I went through. I remember the doctors asking me how much pain I could bear. I told him that if I put my mind to it, I can even dance with pain.
My jokes about cancer are unpleasant and people think I am suppressing my trauma but the fact is they are my coping mechanism.
I have encouraged my remaining teammates, but have never been in a support group. I express my positivity to become better. Just because someone had to have a mastectomy or had a long, complicated run because of a different stage or grade of cancer, doesn’t mean I’ll repeat their situation. Your cancer journey is your own, so don’t be influenced by what happened to others. Instead focus on getting better with confidence, follow your doctor’s advice and keep yourself informed about your condition. Always remember that faith is like drinking water, it can only go in your stomach. And finally, of all women, get your tests and scans done regularly and don’t wait for hidden tumors to surprise you. Remember, I didn’t have obvious symptoms.