Image: Penguin India; Manisha Koirala/via Facebook
The first thing Manisha Koirala, once a top Bollywood actress, told herself after doctors dropped a dreaded word into her ears like molten lava on tender earth: “I do not want to die.”
She texted her friend, remembered her days as a beautiful, much sought-after star on the silver screen. And then, almost immediately, she told herself, sorry she asked herself: “I have cancer?”
Koirala, who hails from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, had never thought of tough illness. But she figured that, if she ever developed cancer, she would pursue the toughest treatment available. But prospects of a difficult surgery filled her with dread. But it was in 2012, Koirala was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. And after undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and treatment, Koirala was cancer free in 2014. Those two years were very distressing, painful but Koirala remained confident, as she wrote in her book, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life, published by Penguin India.
Koirala is not setting the screen ablaze after her treatment, she recently starred in Sanju and the Netflix movie Lust Stories (both released in 2018). But she has offered hope through her story, the book is being picked by many cancer patients from bookstands and airport stalls.
Doctors in the US, writes Koirala, told her about new clinical trials. They told her unlike in India where doctors and patients routinely scramble for the most aggressive weapons to take into the battle against cancer. Koirala says she has been walking on air ever since she has been certified cancer free. She knows that it's not necessary to always take an all-in, nuclear approach. The book beautifully explains why limited knowledge of the disease, the pervasive use of tough, military language by doctors to describe cancer often force patients to go for the blunt-force approach.
Koirala writes in her book how the historical focus on the war on cancer implied that more is always better and decimation is desired. Sadly, it doesn’t capture a world of new biological insights, improved treatments and molecular tests that are transforming how cancer is treated across the world. She says it's time Indians realise that all cancers are the same. In short, knowing when not to treat is also important, it's great medicine for cancer patients.
The veteran actor makes a very important point in her book: You must not look for the most aggressive treatment even if it isn’t needed. In the US, over two thirds of women with early-stage breast cancer can safely avoid chemotherapy. There are men who prefer active surveillance over surgery in low-risk prostate cancer. It's important to seek the right cocktail of drug treatment, writes Koirala, adding how in many hospitals, some forms of cancer, which pose little risk, are often still treated with unnecessary surgery.
Koirala has won her battle, the publisher a bigger challenge to market a book on cancer with hope. The blend is unique, it's a racy read. I know it well because my mother died of cancer, and I was gasping for fresh knowledge.