“Cancer is a dirty word, a word that is frightening,” says Jasbinder Katri, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in 2008 at the age of 40.
But by the way Jas says the word, I wonder why we always think ‘death’ when we hear ‘cancer.’ From the passion in her voice, cancer starts to sound a lot more like living than dying.
“In that moment of being told I had cancer,” Jas says, “I was completely numb with feelings. I felt suffocated, I couldn’t breathe, I fell to the ground and I literally cried my heart out, grabbed hold of the doctor and said, ‘No this can’t be happening to me.’
“The doctor said, ‘Listen to me. You have caught this early. There is no reason why you can’t make a 100 percent recovery’…and the minute that engaged into my brain I got up and said, ‘Do you know what? I have an 8-year-old daughter. I am 40 now and I’m going to live another 40, and you’re going to make sure I live that 40 ‘cause I will take anything that is coming to me and I will fight like a b****!’”
Jas did not allow herself pity; having declared she would not die at any cost was half her battle won. The other half came from a strength that was borne of honesty, family, and the fight of a mother.
“I sat all three of my children down, and [before that] had a real good cry, you know when you have that cry and then you wash your face, slap yourself and say, ‘Get up and go do this. Be a mother. Stop being that victim.’
“I was so proud of myself that I didn’t cry…Obviously they were very upset, they were devastated. But I got to grips with them. I went, ‘Listen. I am your mother. I brought you into this world and I am staying. I will live. You watch me…You tell me what’s in your heart, your mind—any question I can answer, I will answer true to the words that I know. If I don’t know the answer I promise you I will find out and get back to you.’
“They asked me the one important question, ‘Am I going to die?’—like the question I asked myself in that waiting room. And they said, ‘Mum we need to know the truth. Do not hide from us, don’t protect us, tell us how it is.’
“My little one, who was eight at the time, says to me, ‘I want to know everything…word to word. I’m not a little girl. I can take this.’ It was like a weight lifted.”
Jas’ decision to be open with her children allowed their strength to be shared, and created a sense of closeness that carried them through the hardest of times.
“The night before my surgery, my youngest child, my little hero baby, came up to me and said, ‘Mum, I won’t cry if you don’t cry.’ And that day I did not; I could not be quick enough to get into that theatre and be operated on.
“When I lost my hair I started to cry ‘cause I had long hair. I cut it short before I had chemotherapy and I said, ‘Well son, just do what you’ve go to do, just shave the whole head, don’t let me think about it; just do it.’ And he started shaving his own head! He goes, ‘I wont grow my hair until yours grows. You don’t have to be bald on your own.’
Jas and her husband also decided to be open about their experience to the extended community.
“I thought, ‘We can either hide it like the Asian community does, or we come clean and tell the whole world how it is.’ By saying, by telling people, they might go, ‘You know what? I think I’ll go and get mine checked’…if you can save one person’s life, that’s a lot.
“After my mother had passed away from breast cancer my father said to me, ‘You girls know it’s in the family; don’t ignore it.”
And that’s how Jas saved herself. When she found her lump it was tiny and 100 percent treatable.
“I used to check myself every month, and I was in the system. That’s how I saved my life. I could have ignored my father’s advice. I could have been so stupid enough to say, ‘Oh it’s not going to happen to me; I’m Asian.”
The South Asian community’s conversations about cancer tend to be in whispers, and Jas did not want to go along with that.
“It’s lack of communication, lack of language, lack of understanding and the whole stigma attached to cancer,” she says, “because cancer means death.”
“People look at you. Either they’ll embrace you and say, ‘We’re here’ or you’ll have some saying, ‘Oh my god she’s got cancer, I don’t really want to touch her.’
“In my cancer journey (I am also a BRCA carrier) I have tried to highlight it to save lives. You’re scared of the word cancer and you run away from it. Why not hear the word cancer and say how can I prevent it?
“The English people are very open to a degree,” Jas says. “But can you imagine knocking on an Asian person’s door and saying, ‘Can I talk to you about cancer?’”
I couldn’t imagine it before. But Jas is an example of someone who’d be able to do just that—and with every survivor who is as open, vocal, and brave—cancer might not have to mean death knocking on your door.
Jas is one of the stars of the Get to know cancer campaign, launched in a partnership between the Mayor, NHS London and London Councils, to change attitudes to cancer and increase early diagnosis. The campaign will include the opening of the first ever ‘Get to know cancer’ pop-up shops, which will provide an opportunity for people to ask questions about cancer and air concerns they’re not comfortable discussing with family and friends.