Dr Anish Mathew John has an accent. Slightly British, you gather. But Anish doesn’t want to get into the specifics. That’s not the story he wants to tell, he says over a phone call. He is travelling to Mumbai and in a few days his book Dear Friend Cancer will come out. That is what he wants to talk about. The story is about his mom late Susamma John and his dad John C. Easow, how they both got cancer in the last few years, and how, as a son, he dealt with it and took care of them.
He has a doctorate in management along with three Masters degrees. He is an entrepreneur now, but back in 2009, when he got that first shocking phone call from his dad, he was working in the HR department of an MNC.
“Dad rang me up one evening. He said my mom would like to meet me. I had no clue,” Anish says. His mom was diagnosed with Adenocarcinoma of the breast. He refused to believe the reports he saw. He took her to a second hospital, had another biopsy done.
“I realised only after that, a biopsy is so painful, because every time you remove a certain amount of tissue from the body,” he says.
After getting that second report, he had no option but to believe. The next step was going for treatment and not letting anyone know she had cancer. “Because of the social stigma surrounding it,” he says.
This was all back then, before Anish had changed his ways and beliefs. His parents insisted they didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. They took out the free medical cards they had obtained back in the 1970s for treatment at the government-sponsored cancer research centre in Kerala, which Anish doesn’t want to name. “Because there is criticism of the hospital in the book,” he says. That comes later.
In 2009, he was still shaken by the truth of his mother’s disease. “I saw mom sitting awake through the night, on her old armchair, facing the wall with the picture of the holy supper, the Bible open on her lap. I looked closely and saw the Bible’s pages soaked in her tears. After the treatment, she had lost her hair. She was a pretty lady, and she didn’t like the way she was looking in the mirror. The woman who bore me for nine months, was sitting there, counting the number of days she had ahead,” Anish says, with a gasp. He takes a moment to gather himself.
It is not clear if he is reading parts of it from his book, there is a swish of pages in between his words, but then there are the emotions coming across as fast and slow breaths.
“I started learning more about cancer. I understood there was a lot of social stigma. I was an atheist before,” he says.
But after all this, his beliefs changed. He can recite Shlokas from the Hindu books, has read the Quran and pays tribute to Lord the Father, every time he counts his blessings.
“I decided not to change my mom but to change myself. People who take care of cancer patients should put their arms around them, walk with them, help them understand you are with them in this journey and that you are not going to let them go,” he says.
He decided it was time to let everyone know his mom had cancer. He got surprised glances and gestures. “That is the state of our country even to this day. The lack of awareness and stigma surrounding cancer, result in sidelining a person and giving that person the feeling of being ostracised,” he says.
It took effort and time, but his mom recovered. Going through the experience made Anish kinder. If before he used to honk at a person crossing the road while he drove, he now stops the car and waits. Simple, random acts of kindness that made a world of difference.
But even then he was not prepared for the next shock of his life. In 2014, his dad was diagnosed with Metastatic prostate. His dad went to the same cancer research centre with his free card. But Anish soon found that even after being diagnosed with stage four cancer, which was spreading to the kidney, no treatment was being offered. He took advice from friends working in premier institutes like Johns Hopkins and approached his doctor again, to find out why this was so.
“Without seeking consent from my dad or his family members, this doctor received consent from the board to perform a surgery on dad, to remove his kidney and send it for further studies,” he says. Anish left the place.
That’s when he heard of Dr V.P. Gangadharan. The doctor’s kindness and prompt responses impressed Anish so much, he didn’t waste any time taking his dad there. In a year, the cancer was gone.
Today, his dad is with him, but his mom passed away. Anish is now a life coach and psychotherapist. He tells people to change the way they look at cancer. “Look at it as an invited mysterious friend who walked into your life. Learn to adapt in order to live with this friend. And use the art of diplomacy and get this not-so-friendly friend named cancer completely out of your life for good,” he concludes.