Dubai: Meet the Indian cancer warrior inspiring hundreds

Aarti Sondhi won a beauty pageant, modelled for haute couture, became a fitness coach during her battle



Vidhyaa Chandramohan
Vidhyaa Chandramohan
by

Anjana Sankar

Published: Sat 13 Aug 2022, 10:33 AM

Last updated: Sat 13 Aug 2022, 10:39 PM

A former banker and a mother of two in Dubai has turned her fight with cancer into a mission to motivate others to face life's challenges with a positive outlook.

Through five surgeries, multiple chemotherapies, radiations and hormonal treatments to control the metastatic cancer that spread through her body, Aarti Sondhi, 44, stood bold, beautiful and unbroken. She won a beauty contest, walked the ramp with a bald head, modelled for haute couture and even became a fitness coach while battling cancer.

"I was 42 when I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. I had so much to do and achieve. Giving up was not an option. So, I thought I may as well do it with a positive attitude," Sondhi, who is originally from Punjab, told Khaleej Times.

Vidhyaa Chandramohan
Vidhyaa Chandramohan

Cancer during Covid

Sondhi was diagnosed in September 2020 during the height of Covid-19, which made it even more difficult for the family to cope with the new reality.

"I could not even consider the option of travelling anywhere for treatment. None of my family members could come visit me too. It was stressful both mentally and physically," said Sondhi, who came to Dubai with her husband Amit in 2005. The couple has a son aged 13 and a daughter, who is 8.

"My metastatic cancer was even more challenging than the normal cancer as it was already spreading through my body," she said.

Doctors had already found some lymph nodes in her chest. There were also malignant lesions in her sternum and liver. She had to get her uterus removed as a precaution. The medical procedures were countless. She had to undergo a mastectomy as well as several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy and frequent positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Vidhyaa Chandramohan
Vidhyaa Chandramohan

"I lead a relatively healthy lifestyle. I exercise. I don't have a family history of breast cancer. Initially, it was difficult to come to terms with how I became one among every eight women who get breast cancer," said Sondhi, who is still undergoing treatment.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women in the United States. In 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685,000 deaths globally, according to the WHO statistics.

Sondhi credits her husband and her children for pulling her through the illness.

"My husband and my kids were the biggest pillars of support for me. My mother flew in at the earliest opportunity to help me with my familial responsibilities. My faith was also my biggest strength. It gave me answers and gave me purpose."

Documenting the battle

Abu Dhabi-based photographer Vidhyaa Chandramohan documented Sondhi's battle with cancer and her enduring positivity.

"I was touched my Aarti's courage and positivity. She approaches everything with optimism. I worked with her for six months trying to capture her attitude as well as her struggles. She told me that cancer was only a chapter in her life, not her whole story. That was a powerful message," said Chandramohan.

As a documentary photographer, she said she wanted to bring awareness and hope through her story.

"Aarti's story shows that even though she is fighting cancer, she never gives up hope. She uses fitness to pacify herself emotionally and mentally. Hope is a very important part of a healthy, happy, and successful life," she added.

Chandramohan said the visual story of Sondhi's life she captured also aims to dispel the stigma associated with a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease and raise awareness for others in similar condition.

Mission to motivate others

After the initial shock and trauma of the disease, Sondhi says she got the answer to a burning question. "Why me? It became clear to me that I have a bigger mission – to inspire and motivate people," she said.

"I also wanted my kids to see that I am a fighter. I wanted to set an example. They will become what we show them."

Sondhi became a certified fitness coach and took to fitness to get back in shape.

Vidhyaa Chandramohan
Vidhyaa Chandramohan

"In fact, I was just weeks away from completing my professional fitness certification when I was diagnosed. So, I went ahead and completed the course to help other cancer survivors. I do regular yoga, meditation, strength exercises and cycling," she said.

Sondhi lost her hair because of chemotherapy, but that did not stop her from taking part in the Mrs Universe Middle East beauty contest held in Dubai.

"I wrote to the organisers and asked them whether they would be willing to take me in. The response was overwhelming, both from the audience and other contestants. When I was asked which country I represent, I said I am there for all the cancer warriors. I was selected as the first runner-up," she said.

Vidhyaa Chandramohan
Vidhyaa Chandramohan

Since then, Sondhi has been modelling for jewellery and haute couture brands and has walked the ramp a few times. Her Instagram handle (@fittraarti) that is bursting with pictures and videos of her celebrating life and spreading positive messages is inspiring many others.

"I am getting a flood of messages from other cancer patients as well residents. If my story creates a ripple effect and encourages people to fight their battles with a positive outlook, my mission is complete. If I can, they too can," she said.

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