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Verve People
October 01, 2018

Manisha Koirala’s New Reality

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Joshua Navalkar. Styling by Ojas Kolvankar. Hair and Make-Up: Anuradha Raman. Hair and Make-Up Assistant: Suraj Tiwari

She faces each day with her trademark wide smile, despite being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Seen earlier this year in Sanju and Lust Stories, Manisha Koirala has come to terms with the changes that have occurred in her mind, body, lifestyle and social circle. Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena pens her story — in the actor’s own words

The worst things — health and relationship breakdowns — have peppered my life. What I have learnt, especially after this illness hit me in 2012, is that I have the choice to decide how to take things that happen to me. To give you one example, I have a beautiful terrace upstairs. I returned to my home in Mumbai from Nepal (where I am from) to find it ruined and all my plants destroyed. I broke down. But after a couple of days, I realised that perhaps something good could come out of it. And now I have decided to build a yoga room there.

Prior to being afflicted with cancer, I did not care about my health. I led an unhealthy life and was a workaholic. If I focused on something, I needed to do it to the last detail. But that attitude can sometimes backfire; for we need to have a sense of balance. We women are not trained to look after ourselves — either we are always looking after our families or concentrating on our work. Now, I request every woman, including my mother, to focus on herself first. Stop doing stuff for your kids, husbands and everyone else. Only if you are okay can you do things for others.

I have redefined the term ‘selfish’. Looking after oneself is important and this includes both the physical and emotional aspects. It is okay to be sad. We are multidimensional beings. The emotional aspect matters a great deal to me. It pulls me down and manifests itself in my body. So, I now emphasise that it is perfectly fine to prioritise yourself. I also believe that one size does not fit all. You have to discover — and walk on — your own journey and take control yourself.

I learned that dealing with cancer is not just black and white at all. It has a lot of greys. It is not a linear course of action. The illness comes as a huge shock and it takes a while to recover from its impact. Then you have to begin to think practically. It’s happened, so what next? Where is the best treatment available? Do you have enough money? Then there is the fear factor. Is this the end of life? And during chemotherapy, there is lots of confusion because you have to sign many waivers.

My mother is the backbone of our family, but I also have a huge connection with the divine. Through all the pain and confusion, most of us find the connection with the divine soothing. I learned to slowly express whatever I was feeling. Earlier, when I would feel sadness, love or anger, I would keep the emotions inside me. One of the lessons I learned was to not suppress my feelings. With the divine, I could let them all out. I used to pray a lot. I had a jaap mala. I added on to my normal jaaps as I wanted to train my subconscious to think positive thoughts like ‘I am cured, I am healthy and strong’.

I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that was in a late stage. It is known to come like a hurricane and sweep you away. So I made it a point to read a lot, finding stories that made me stay positive and helped me survive. But this was not easy. It is a tough journey for anyone. That is why doctors say that patients with family support are likely to do much better than those who are alone. But there is a huge amount of guilt that plagues the patients. I constantly felt guilty because my parents were old and still looking after me. Patients either came to the hospital for treatment alone or with their spouses or siblings. My brother was a huge support. But, I remember nurses in the chemotherapy room whispering that I only had my old parents with me. And I would shrink into myself.

Even after I was declared cancer-free, doctors said that because it was a late-stage cancer, it could recur. I had to be careful for the next three years. I asked them what I had to do to ensure that it stayed away. They told me that if it did come back, I should not blame myself.

I tried to do everything possible to stay well. I got into a semi-vegetarian phase, I started my emotional healing process and I worked on my issues. As I was depressed, I went to the Oneness University (a spiritual school located in South India) for a few months. I consulted nutritionist and wellness expert Dr Vijaya Venkat and also Rachna Chhachhi, a nutritional therapist. I realised that the core of any disease is inflammatory and started finding how I could stay alkaline. I have changed my water to Kangen Water and am mindful about not eating acidic food. I tend to be slightly erratic with my exercise — I still haven’t hit the right balance, but I am physically active and I swim, meditate, trek and hike. I started praying that my efforts work because despite every precaution you take, things may not necessarily go well. And that is why I never claim that my method has worked. I can only claim that I have tried — and god has been kind.

When I returned from my treatment in the US, music composer and singer Aadesh Shrivastava — Vijeta Pandit’s husband — came to visit me. He was suffering from blood cancer. He told me that no matter how much the family loved you, it was a journey you had to take alone. ‘You have to take ownership,’ he said. ‘You just have to be strong.’ One faces many dark spaces and a lot of uncertainty. At every step, there is a dagger dangling over your head. Before my surgery, the doctor in America said he had treated someone with a similar cancer and she was doing well. Right after the surgery, he told me that he could not predict how I would do because cancer is not like a cough or a cold — you treat it and have to wait to see how the body responds. I had to make peace with my own death and with the fact that it is not in my control. I have vowed that I am not going to go with fear and sadness. I am going to go laughing and smiling. That will be my ultimate test. As long as I live, I want to be ready for it, and when I realise that death is near, I want to gracefully say goodbye.

Initially, I did expect a lot from my friends. But after a lot of introspection at the Oneness University, I started looking inwards. I wondered if I had been the kind of friend for my friends that I was asking them to be, for me! We always expect others to do things for us and we get disappointed when it doesn’t pan out the way we like. But we never check to see if we have lived up to their expectations. I had a little bit of hurt in my heart and carried that around for some time. But my reflections taught me that it was pointless to feel that way. Now, I am in a happier space and can relate to my friends much more. I do not expect anything anymore, but neither can I give more. If I can, I will. If my friends can, they will. There were a few people who came unexpectedly. So, though I didn’t get what I was looking for from the people I was expecting, I got a lot more from others. I saw a lot of kindness and affection. People were praying for me, sending messages on Facebook, and even my mother got multiple calls. When I returned from the US, I would head out to the streets for my morning walks. People would notice and bless me.

I soon got back to work. This year, Sanju released — it hit too close to home. I was nervous because Nargis Duttji also suffered from cancer. Now, I have to be careful that I don’t get into a sad, morose space. When I see that zone, I turn down the film because I am a sensitive soul. In one movie that I will be doing, I am grieving. But I have a plan on how to do it right. I have taken the director and producers into confidence. I tell them that I do not intend to be in a sad space for the whole month. So they need to give me some space to recover from what I have carried and then come back. It is a beautiful film about grieving, but I have to protect myself.

I definitely do not want too many highs or lows in life now. If cancer has not taught me important lessons on how to live, what else will! We need to be able to see our strengths and work on them. My strong will is my strength. But, I keep a check on it and do not go to extremes. The divine has made me a person who can take a lot of punches. I don’t punch back, but I can lock myself in a room and scream out. The first few years after my treatment were filled with mood swings. I even experienced early menopause but I could not let myself grieve as I was just thankful that I had recovered from cancer. I remember my mom going through her menopause and she was a terror. For me too, it was quite bad. I experienced anger, and would burst into tears anytime. That whole phase was short-lived because I had to focus on my cancer not recurring. So, I decided to concentrate on something good and focused on healing. When I see others like Irrfan (Khan) and Sonali (Bendre), I can see the pain behind their smiles. During my treatment, I had started noticing people’s eyes and what they conveyed. I promised myself that I did not want to have a cancer patient’s eyes because they reek of impending death. So, whenever I take a selfie, I make my eyes big and bright, and smile!

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