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Manisha Koirala: I want to work on making cancer treatment affordable

Richa Mishra | Updated on February 05, 2019 Published on December 21, 2018

No holds barred: The actor doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the mistakes she has made, and is often harsh on herself   -  G RAMAKRISHNA

The actor is taking one step at a time. Having battled cancer, Koirala is now hoping to spread awareness about the disease

It’s nine in the morning. I am greeted by a gentle voice when I call Manisha Koirala in Kathmandu. “Hi, sorry,” she says, and I am thrown for a fraction of a second. It’s not often, after all, that one comes across a polite celebrity. She had not answered an earlier call and message. But Koirala, the Saudagar girl, is not just any celebrity. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, she has fought the disease — and narrates the battle in Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life, penned with Neelam Kumar. She recalls in the book — to be launched on Monday — her first thoughts when she heard she had cancer. “How could I have got cancer? I was healthy, ate well and exercised well, No, no, there must be some mistake,” Koirala writes. The 48-year-old actor has been cancer-free since 2013. She tells BLink that she has battled fear, is enjoying life in whichever form it unfolds and taking small steps to create awareness about cancer. Excerpts from the interview:

What prompted you to write about the darkest period of your life — your battle with cancer?

I felt compelled to write about it because it was a unique experience. People know that cancer is painful, that it is fearful, that it is a tough journey. But I felt that there was a need to give a first-hand account of what a person suffering from cancer actually goes through. This is not only about cancer. It is like anything that can happen to us that is fateful and leaves us shaken. Ignorance can be fatal, so I felt that I needed to tell this story.

What comes out prominently in the book is the lack of awareness about cancer even among the affluent. There is a need to focus on the detection process, on how to approach cancer and so on …

Absolutely, I think awareness is the key. My aunt, who lived in the West, was so much more aware when she was diagnosed with cancer. But in the West, it is different and it comes under people’s healthcare plans. Lives are saved because of this awareness.

Laughing it off: Koirala points out that women who are caregivers often don’t take care of their own health and when a woman falls ill, it leads to not only a financial burden but also an emotional burden on the family   -  S HARPAL SINGH

 

Think of it this way. I came from an affluent family, am well- known and well-read. If I was ignorant (about ovarian cancer), what must be going on in average homes and with the average woman? This also made me realise that, by and large, women in our part of the world who are actual caregivers don’t take much care of their own health. Society also makes us prioritise — beta, pati, saas, sasur (son, husband, parents-in-law)... but we never care for ourselves. What we must realise is that if a woman falls ill, it leads to not only a financial burden but also an emotional burden on the entire family.

You also talk about an alternative method of healing. Is that mainly for one’s psychological satisfaction?

Yes, there was a psychological reason to it. I really didn’t want to lose the opportunity to heal myself. My mom, dad — everybody in the family — started reading (about cancer). What I generally saw was that everybody who had healed had also opted for alternative methods. But there are also those who have recovered only through medical treatment. I come from a certain system of faith and wanted to utilise everything around me. All I wanted was to heal myself.

Cancer treatment is not cheap. Despite being a working woman, and coming from an affluent background, you also needed to work on your finances. Imagine someone without any financial strength having to undergo cancer treatment…

There are heartbreaking instances where people have had to sell their house and use their life’s savings for treatment. Cancer treatment is very expensive and the process is painful and long. This is something that we have to collectively think about, on how to make it affordable. By the grace of God I had savings, which were well utilised and I was fine. I really want to work on making treatment affordable, though I have no clue yet how to do so.

The other day I was speaking to one of the directors of the Tata Memorial Centre (about the costs) in Mumbai, and he said, “Manisha, it’s like a bottomless pit”. The more you give, the more is required. I think there is need for some kind of a consensus on how to make treatment more affordable. Maybe the government can pitch in. Healthcare needs a lot of attention.

There is a sharp rise in the number of cancer cases today. Do you think this has something to do with the kind of lifestyles people now have?

I think there are a few triggers — genetic, lifestyle and environmental. If we need to really live, everything has to be factored in. If the environment is not clean and we eat chemical pesticides, are subjected to mobile phone radiation, and more such things happen that our naked eyes can’t see, then... There should be more discussions on how to make the environment clean and for us to have a better lifestyle.

When it comes to genetic disposition, as in my case, what I have realised is that we never focus on this aspect. We have to see our life in totality.

 

Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life Manisha Koirala with Neelam Kumar Non-fiction Penguin ₹499

 

As one reads the book, one gets the feeling that you have gone through very strong emotions — in accepting the disease, then there was a sense of self-pity and, finally, of victory. But there are moments where one feels that you are too harsh on yourself, particularly when you talk about your mistakes or about being unlucky in love.

Yes, I tend to be self-critical at times. This is because during my cancer period — while I was going through the whole process of treatment — I had time to reflect. I really woke up to certain situations and realisations which I had never reflected upon earlier. I felt I had to be honest to myself, and in the book, too, the focus is on being honest. You are right, I am self-critical in parts.

The book also shows your softer side. You talk strongly about motherhood and it is evident that you feel a vacuum in your life about not having a child…

What nature has gifted us is the ability to give birth. There was — is — a strong desire in me to have a child. But now it is not possible. I dabbled with the idea of adopting and going through the whole process, but I am a little sceptical about this now. I have to figure out that I have a new body and a new kind of life, having been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and the chances of recurrence.

There is a reason why I am unable to take the bold step of going ahead and adopting a child. I do feel at a loss for not having a child of my own at times, very much so.

You also write about your fears post recovery — of being accepted, of the implications of chemotherapy. You wondered if people would be sympathetic to you, or whether they would be harsh.

I was very nervous about how I looked or how I would be perceived because, prior to this whole cancer process, there were a few articles in the press that had really shaken me up. I was kind of nervous and scared about what people would say.

I went through one phase where I would go to Mumbai and then keep coming back to Kathmandu. I started avoiding people and withdrew into a shell till I started looking out — and realised that the fear was only in my head. I did receive a lot of love. I generally found affection, concern and care, which was quite nice.

You talk about the need for psychotherapy. How relevant is it?

Psychotherapy is different from psychiatric treatment. It is counselling by an expert. At home, everybody is ready to give free advice, but professional guidance is a thousand times more effective. There is also a huge connection between the mind and body.

I mentioned it because I think readers are becoming more aware of counselling. This should not be a taboo topic. In many cases, with psychotherapy, not only the emotional element, but the physical element too starts getting healed. I was very open to it. It should be adopted as nothing extraordinary, but as something required.

In the process, you seem to have “evolved” as a human being. You are open to speaking about your drawbacks, too. You also react with wit when people comment on your age.

The reason I talk openly about my minuses — alcohol being one of them — is that I believe everything done in moderation, or within healthy limits, is fine. I will not criticise someone but, as I look back, I say, “Okay, this is what I did not do right.” The book is about being healthy. It is part a reflection on mistakes and part-realisation that I really wasn’t my best version. I wanted to live a better life. And that was a promise I made to myself.

Yes, why talk of age when a woman is concerned? But accept your age. I am waiting for the change to happen!

What next?

I hesitate to make big plans now. I have shortlisted a few areas which I want to work on while making the most of what I am doing. I finished this book. There are two scripts for next year. Fingers crossed, these movies will happen.

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Published on December 21, 2018
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