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Tahira Kashyap on her battle with breast cancer

Tahira Kashyap on her battle with breast cancer

Ayushmann Khurrana's wife talks about overcoming the stigma around breast cancer and giving beauty a new definition

By Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Sun 20 Oct 2019, 10:13 AM

Last updated: Tue 22 Oct 2019, 10:36 AM

The world of a cancer survivor can be incredibly lonely. While families empathise and strangers sympathise, no one really embarks on the psychological journey. In the case of a breast cancer survivor, however, emotional scars may just outweigh physical ones. As one copes with the bodily changes, the pressure of matching up to someone else's idea of beauty can often plant a seed of doubt. Which is why, apart from early detection and other prescribed dos and don'ts, it is as important for women survivors to learn to love themselves enough to be able to ride through this journey, and for us to accept that beauty can be formless too.
Between surviving and thriving, Tahira Kashyap Khurranna chose the latter. A filmmaker and wife of Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurranna, Tahira was diagnosed with Stage Zero cancer last year - a time when her actor husband's career had been peaking with hits such as Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho. While Ayushmann may have been 2018's most successful actor, Tahira has been a real star. From posting pictures of her bald head to showing her scars, her posts have carried messages of hope for many women who go through breast cancer silently to avoid embarrassment. Recently in town for an event to celebrate cancer warriors, we met Tahira to get a sense of her journey and, by extension, that of other breast cancer survivors.
You have been candid in your social media posts when talking about breast cancer and how you survived it. Was it a considered decision to talk about it publicly?
That's not how it started. I was like any other person who was baffled and thought, "What would I do now?" I come from a conventional family, who were supportive of the condition, but still asked me to zip up and not talk about it. That's what happens usually - it is something you and your family have dealt with and you feel the world doesn't need to know. I was convinced about it, too, but at the same time, I was also meeting doctors. On the same floor, there would be other patients. I felt crushed listening to their stories. A lot of lives have been lost because families weren't supportive. There is a stigma associated with talking about it, a little bit of which even I experienced when I was asked not to talk about it. Apart from that, doctors told me that women often feel guilty. They think they have brought it upon themselves and their families, and I never understood that position. This only adds to their suffering. So, the day I was discharged from the hospital, I decided to talk about it openly. I am grateful that Ayushmann supported me through this because had he flinched even once, it would have crushed my spirit.
Can you revisit the moment when the diagnosis came?
I had to get an MRI-led biopsy done, which wasn't available in Mumbai, so Ayushmann and I flew to Delhi to meet the doctors. As she was doing my biopsy, the doctor had figured out my condition. She called us to her cabin and began talking about various stages of cancer. I was shocked, but did not cry. It turned funny because outside nurses were lining up to get pictures clicked with Ayushmann. Poor chap had just got to know that his wife has cancer and here he had to get selfies clicked. As soon as we reached the hotel and entered the lift, I said, "Yeh kya ho gaya humare saath? (What has happened to us?)" We went back to Bombay, where the doctor told me I had Stage Zero cancer, which was a good thing. I asked him, "What's the bad thing?" He told me I had to undergo a mastectomy, but there were reconstruction surgeries as well. Now, that was a devastating moment for me. Ayushmann told me, "Are you mad? When you were told you had cancer, you didn't break down. Now when someone is giving you a solution, you are upset." I realised he was right. My life is more important. Women are more than the assets allotted to us. So, when I was undergoing mastectomy, I got it reconstructed in the same surgery.
This phase in your life came at a time when Ayushmann was peaking professionally with Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho. What was your journey through this?
He was promoting Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho at the same time. Thankfully, all the promotions were taking place in Mumbai. Now, he could have backed off, but I didn't want that. I told him that it was essentially my journey. He had commitments to other people and a lot of money was riding on these films. He had to respect that. That's when he took the decision that he would be a part of the promotions, but at night, he would come to the hospital and go again in the morning.
You have spoken about feeling in secure in your marriage earlier. It's rare for a 'starwife' to be candid in an industry that swears by political correctness.
Before belonging to any industry or person, I am me. I need to belong to myself first. This was my journey and I felt more in tune with myself when I was talking about this. Also, I had funny, weird takes on my condition, which sort of helped.
Social media can be a particularly cruel place for public figures. Did you anticipate any trolling after you posted pictures of your bald head?
My intention was very clear - I was sharing a message with the world. That's how the world perceived and received it at large. But yes, there were cases where people were uncomfortable with me showing my back and the scars, my baldness, they were uncomfortable with me walking the ramp. And that's when I realised that this is exactly what I had to change. If you have a problem with one picture, I will keep posting more. I wanted to spread awareness not just on early breast cancer detection, but also self-love. I was never really a person who was in love with herself. Through this process, I realised you need to respect your mental and physical well-being. That became my motto. Of course, I have trolls telling me that I look like Shah Rukh Khan; when I put up a picture with Ayushmann, they say, 'bhai-bhai'. Some people have called me an attention seeker. I tell them yes, I want your attention, not towards me but the cause. And if this is what it takes to get your attention, so be it.
Your seven-year-old son was uncomfortable seeing you go bald. What did it take for you to normalise that state at home?
When diagnosed with cancer, people do not go bald out of choice. But women stop feeling beautiful. On top of that when the world reacts like that, it only strengthens your self-doubt. I didn't care about what the world thought of me, I felt beautiful. My son was like, "Please don't come to the play area to meet my friends. And if you do, wear a cap." I listened and then after some time, followed him. Seeing me, he was really embarrassed. His friends were intrigued by this bald woman amidst them. After 10-15 minutes, everything became normal because I made it so. I was talking to everyone the way I usually would. When they saw this energy coming from me, they also reciprocated. And after a period of time, my son came up to me and told me, "Mumma, you're looking nice." It was a small victory for me. I had changed the definition of beauty for my son.
And how did your own idea of beauty change in the process?
I think beauty emanates from your life. You could be in rags, but if you're happy, you radiate that happiness. I didn't have eyelashes at the time, so I would wear funky glasses to conceal that area. I am also quite tall, so I started looking like a boy. But I have enjoyed being bald and later, having the shortest crop of hair.
Many survivors say cancer may leave the body, but never the mind. Is there considerable truth in that claim?
Of course. I would be lying if I denied that the fear is not there, which is why we need to go for annual check-ups. For the rest of my life, I have to get mammograms done; if something pops up, I will need to visit the doctor and get it checked. It's good in a way that I am not reckless about it. However, it doesn't help being an ostrich. One should also enjoy life.
Work matters
Tahira is currently working on a short film with Guneet Monga and looking towards a feature film, which will be women-centric. "But my kind of writing is not preachy. So, the film will be quirky and fun; it will be about enjoying womanhood," she says.

Tahira with husband Ayushmann Khurrana
Tahira with husband Ayushmann Khurrana

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