Swapna Sethu is a fighter. She can't decide if it was own strength or the situations in her life that left her no other option. She lived in a physically abusive marriage for many years before finally appealing for a separation. In the process, she lost custody of her son to her husband. While coming to terms with her loss and separation, a period emotionally trying, she enrolled for her training as a lawyer, an attempt to start a different life, this time depending on herself more than anyone else.
Swapna's story of conquering cancer began in February, 2004. She was 33 years old when admitted to Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai. She received good schooling and comfortable childhood years in Kuwait and pursued higher education in Pune. Her medical history was limited to a few hospitalizations for accident injuries and a difficult cesarean during the birth of her son. After her separation, she moved to Bangalore at the insistence of her close friend, Rajini. She was her closest aid, her silver lining, her friend in need. Rajini cared for Swapna and made her feel herself again. It was she who insisted that Swapna gets the white patch on the underside of her tongue medically examined. The scars were of a previously inflicted injury during a violent faceoff with her husband. On much insistence, Swapna decided to consult a dentist, who was quick to suggest a surgical examination. The biopsy reports diagnosed Squamous Cell Carcinoma GradeII. On her initial immediate reaction to the reports, Swapna said, “At that time I did not fully realize how dire my diagnosis was and it upset my close friends and family that I was not emotionally responding to my condition by taking it as the end of the world, in hindsight, it was for the best. I let my experience educate me. My intellectual engagement with my body gave me the strength to concentrate on learning about the disease and what would be happening to me and how I had to face it. I decided to research the disease rather than collapse mentally”.
Swapna considers herself lucky to have been treated by the best team of medical professionals. Remembering late Dr. Sastri from Adyar Institute, she remembers her gentle approach with her patients. The treatment itself brings back painful memories of the sessions of Iridium Brach therapy through implantation after removing all her teeth on the right lower jaw. She was put on nasal feed for a long period, which she described as highly painful. Due to the terrible pain and difficulty in even drinking fluids let alone eating food for more than six months, she explored and supplemented her treatment with alternative therapies which proved helpful. She underwent modified Radical Neck dissection performed by the veteran, Dr. C. S. Mani and his team, who gave high priority to her fear of an ugly scar and stitched her neck beautifully. Once discharged, she was given a break of one month after which external neck radiation continued for one and a half months. Swapna was also warned of secondary Lymphoma of the neck and was advised to undergo a neck surgery at the earliest. Many years of physiotherapy, follow up visits for endoscopies and minor surgeries of gums continued. Against the backdrop of all this, once back in Coimbatore, Swapna explored several career options, including construction, travel and HR. She tried to continue her career in Law but it did not work out given her low immunity and muscular atrophy of shoulder rendered by loss of lymph nodes, muscles and nerves due to surgical interventions. She had both good and bad days and the multiple scars left on her body due to radiation elongated the process of healing.
For Swapna the bigger challenge, than enduring her medical condition, was gathering the courage to ignore the paranoid concerns of loved ones over recurrence of the condition.
Swapna doesn't like the term 'survivor'. She prefers 'conqueror'. To her, the experience was like a sandstorm - something blew in and out and somehow she made it through. She was clear of who she was and wanted to be. She believes she emerged as a better version of herself. She took cancer at its face value, taking it as an opportunity to learn what she thought she needed to learn and to appreciate little things, see the world from a different perspective. She wanted to conquer the sense of hopelessness that everyone associated with cancer and so she did. Her treatment and physical suffering never broke her spirit. She did not stop herself from living life to the fullest. She participated in rallies, ventured in commercial modeling, danced on stage at functions, started a boutique of her own, travelled to new places, played in the snow, swam in pools and did almost or maybe even more than what a healthy person does. She has lived in various cities internationally before settling in Pune. She has invested in keeping her mind young and alert by continuing to have further education and acquiring knowledge in various fields.