Rupali Vaity speaks fast and nonchalantly, narrating the day she found a patch of her hair in her hands during her grooming routine one morning. It had been a fortnight since radiation therapy had begun. With the first batch of hair fall, she casually ordered her younger brother Swapnil to bring a razor and shave off all her hair. She remarked, “I didn't want hair falling everywhere in the house and my siblings getting sentimental over it. It's just hair, it'll grow back. What's the big deal?” Her brother, Swapnil, older sister, Reshma and also her neighbours whose house she was living in whilst being treated for breast cancer, were shocked at her proposal. They tried to take her words lightly, which further drove her off the edge. So she picked the razor and shaved off her own hair.
Rupali, a fisherman's daughter, grew up in Mahim, Mumbai. Her parents were very progressive in their thinking, and wanted her to succeed in academics. So did Rupali, she loved school. When in her higher secondary, she discovered her mother was suffering through uterine cancer. She chose to be at home and care for her family which caused her missing board exams. Mounting medical bills and responsibilities motivated Rupali to help her father in every way she could. That was the end of formal education for her.
In 2013, at the young age of 31 on a relatively cold winter day in December, Rupali collected her biopsy reports to discover a six-inch lump in her left breast. It made a special medical case owing to the presence of triple negative cells and was taken up as a study case in Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH). Rupali feels thankful for being part of a study case as that gave her priority treatment. She also felt looked after in the hospital, which made her treatment seem smoother than others. She sought medical help as soon as she became aware of the lump in her left breast.
Rupali went numb on finding out. Not shocked or surprised, just numb. She had a family history of cancer. Six of her aunts had cancer. She expected to get it at some point, at least subconsciously, perhaps the reason behind her fearless approach to it.
Rupali got married in 2008 and settled two lanes away from Reshma's house. She was the first person she shared her reports with. Initially supportive, her in-laws and husband decided to consult a family doctor for further treatment. However, Rupali wanted otherwise for herself. She wished to seek the expertise of doctors at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai. She asserted her opinion and what she thought was in her best interest. This did not go down too well with her inlaws and husband. She was given the choice of either going with their advice or leaving the house. Rupali moved to Reshma's house and stayed there for major part of her treatment. Her husband ignored her completely during the crucial month of her surgery.
She thought he was just annoyed over a misunderstanding and was prepared to forgive him as soon as he came to her. He saw her for the first time after her first chemo session and eventually started visiting regularly. Rupali never questioned him for remaining absent when she needed him the most. She was just happy that he came back. She later confessed that deep down her heart, she was disappointed in him but she was never going to bring the topic up with him because she didn't know what caused it and wouldn't want to risk his absence again. During the course of treatment, if there was anything that mildly pulled her down, it was staying active in social circles. Rupali stopped socializing during her treatment. She never showed any signs of disappointment though. She was on her toes spending time with Vedang, her four year old nephew to keep him entertained. Even as her physical movements were restricted during the treatment, her spirit was not. She loved interacting with him, answering his four-year-old-curiosity with matching enthusiasm. He was her bridge to retaining sanity during those times.
Wildly aware of the family history of cancer, Reshma and Swapnil were constantly worried about their sister. Rupali never let their smile fade, she maintained her chatty, chirpy personality to ensure that her siblings did not pity her. Behind her smile though were hidden concerns and desires. She often felt the absence of a maternal figure – someone she could hug and cry to. She wanted to remove the cloak of strength, at times and find comfort in an anchor or a confidant to whom she could allay her fears and find reassurance. She remarks "Mujhse koi bada nahi tha to mein khud hi badi ban gayi (I had to take up the role of a matured elder, since there wasn't one present)." Rupali thinks that she is a 'workaholic'. Right after her radiation therapy, even before fully recovering, she started going for job interviews. She was bored of staying indoors and felt the need to get back to a routine. She met with recruiters who were shocked in disbelief. She had several job offers lined up in no time. All however, insisting that she wait till fully recovered. She had prior experience in Customer-Relationship Management where she trained people working in BPOs. She had to take this job because it paid well, Rupali confesses. Her heart lies in counseling and rehabilitation services, which unfortunately doesn't pay as well, at least initially.
She wants to add value to the organization that she works with and the community at large and also earn money and lead a comfortable lifestyle. Her future plans include having one biological child and adopting another one. She wants to adopt a baby girl and raise her like her own. She has held on to this dream ever since she was a young girl herself.
Rupali is one of those people who redefined the limits of endurance. She selflessly embraced every situation that came her way and made the best of it. Engaging with cancer, she has now equipped herself with skills and knowledge to guide others going through a similar trajectory