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Journalism of Courage

Breast cancer survivor Shormistha Mukherjee on embracing the disease instead of fighting it

In her debut book 'Cancer, You Picked The Wrong Girl', the author talks about her diagnosis, the shock and denial that followed and also and how cancer came to teach her 'some lessons'

cancer, cancer experience, breast cancer survivor, book on breast cancer, cancer, breast cancer in women, breast cancer awareness, You Picked The Wrong Girl, author Shormistha Mukherjee, indian express newsWe talk about surviving cancer as some sort of bravado. But Mukherjee says she "never fought it". There was no "moment of courage". (Photo: Instagram/@agentgreenglass)

Cancer, the dreaded ‘C-word’, is the unspeakable, unutterable term that makes people quiver. And as much as it does that, our country still lacks awareness of the need for proper and timely health checkups to rule out the risks associated with different types of cancer.

Shormistha Mukherjee — now in her 40s — was, for the longest time, consumed by her own life: chasing the mundane, stressing about things. When she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, her world changed quite a bit. She was naturally rudely shaken from a slumber, but also thought of it as a wake-up call.

As she went about her treatment and discovered new things about her own body and her prognosis, she decided she would document it all. Since it was all a novel experience for her, she sprinkled some humour on it and wrote her debut book, ‘Cancer, You Picked The Wrong Girl‘.

For instance, Mukherjee writes about her love for pedicures, and how it was a cancelled pedicure appointment that pushed her to finally make the call to her gynaecologist and schedule an appointment to get her breast lump checked.

“I wrote this book exactly in the way that I was seeing things; I did not consciously decide to add humour to the narrative. There were things that I was finding amusing and in my head, I was smiling and making a commentary. I wrote whatever I felt at that moment in my journey,” the Mumbai-based co-founder of a digital agency said during a telephonic interaction.

Mukherjee clarified that she did not intend to be preachy or send across a message of positivity when she wrote her story. “I am someone who lives inside my own head. I have thoughts, and I put them down. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes it is sad.”

She was not actively thinking of writing an entire book, detailing some bits of her life in a blog initially. “But, I stopped writing the blog before my chemo sessions. I felt my parents had a lot to deal with, and that reading my blogs would make it very hard for them to be constantly reminded of what I was going through.”

When Mukherjee got contacted by Harper Collins Publishers India, she was in two-minds about writing a book. Many people, who were also going through a similar experience, perhaps found comfort and solidarity in her writings. They would read her blog and reach out to her. “They would tell me that my blog made them smile, that they could relate to it. And that convinced me to write this book. There are so many women who go through breast cancer, but you don’t hear their stories — what it is like, the emotions, the good days, the bad days, etc.”


When she received her diagnosis, her first reaction was that of disbelief. “I thought, ‘Arey yeh kaise ho sakta hai?‘ Nobody in my house has had breast cancer.”

As mentioned earlier, it was — what Mukherjee thought — a “benign lump” that brought her to the doctor’s office. It was a busy workday, and she had expected a clean chit so she could go back to work. But the lump, as she writes in her book, had been growing for a while. It did not help that her nipple had also “gone in”, or become “inverted”.

“My initial thought after learning of it was, ‘How do I solve this and get better?’ I had to break [the process] down into smaller steps — knowing that my hair would fall off and I would need to prepare for the surgery. It all happened so fast, amid all the shock and the denial. Nothing sinks in. I knew nothing about breast cancer. Every day, I learnt about new tests, trying to cope.”

Mukherjee said her husband Anirban was her rock-solid support. “He carried my files, figuring what to do, running around, being there for me emotionally, comforting me — he was my primary caregiver and he was amazing. My parents, in-laws, sister-in-law were there to support me, too. I am grateful.”


The author also highlighted that sometimes, when people learn about a cancer diagnosis, they do not know how to react. She herself encountered this when a friend told her they would keep their distance and not talk to her for a while. “There were lots of people who could not cope with it, which is fine. If someone is overwhelmed and feels they will be terrible in dealing with a friend’s cancer diagnosis, it is better they stay away. Everybody has an opinion on doctors and treatments, anyway, and that becomes difficult.”

We mostly talk about surviving cancer as some sort of an act of bravado. But Mukherjee bluntly says she “never fought it”. There was no “moment of courage”. She said that she feels “cancer came to teach me some lessons”. “There are these gaps in your life that you are not looking at or fixing. So, this becomes a harsh way to make you listen. I felt I had to peacefully accept it, and then it would go away. My work schedule before diagnosis was crazy. I used to take massive amounts of stress. I did not eat correctly. Now, I try to have more balance in my life.”

Mukherjee urged that women get themselves screened, especially if they are over 40, regardless of whether they have had breast cancer cases in their family.

Mental upheaval

The treatment takes long, and it can eventually impact the mental health of the patient. In Mukherjee’s case, it had a huge impact on her self-esteem, given that her appearance had begun to change. “Your hair falls off, your eyelashes and eyebrows fall off. Your face changes, and people are surprised to look at you. Then, you start to feel guilty about the fact that people are caring for you and you are sick. Mentally, I feel it takes time to sort that out,” she said, adding that she now gets herself checked every six months.

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First published on: 01-12-2021 at 12:00 IST
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