10 March, 2021
An unbroken spirit

Author: Dr. M. Suneetha, Radiation Oncology

As soon as she entered the chamber I immediately stood up, drawn by the angelic face. She was dressed in a white tunic, as a bride of Christ should be and a radiant smile resided permanently on her face. Sister Nivedita was a teacher in a Missionary-run-school at Secunderabad and taught English and Moral Science to high school students. This soft-spoken nun was in her late 40s.

I found her extremely well-read and educated. Her parents had wanted her to marry and settle down but she chose to shun the materialistic life and joined the convent to serve God. To my surprise, she was quite aware of the risks and symptoms posed by cancer. She told me: “ Since I am a nun – unmarried and without children, I knew I was in the high-risk category for breast cancer. So I have been doing self-examination of the breast every month ever since
I turned 25. Some time back, I found a small lump in my left breast and although it was painless I was sure it was cancer, that’s the reason I decided to consult an oncologist

She had earlier consulted a surgeon and underwent breast conservation surgery where only the tumor was removed and the axillary nodal sampling revealed that the disease was yet to spread to the axillary nodes. Her receptor status – a test done on the lump came out as positive which was prognostically good for the patient and she was advised to take certain hormonal tablets daily for a period of 5 years. She belonged to a very low risk group thanks to her timely visit to an oncologist and didn’t require chemotherapy. She was referred to me for radiation.

I explained that she would require radiation therapy to the whole left breast for 15 fractions and also 5 more fractions of boost dose to the tumour bed since it was a breast conservation therapy. Sister Nivedita turned out to be a quiet and polite patient even when she had to wait for long hours due to breakdown of the machinery. She always carried her Bible in her hand and while waiting for her turn she would be immersed in the sacred text. She never left the Bible behind, even when she entered the room for radiation therapy. After the first day of radiation she requested for a lady technologist. I immediately arranged
for one.

I was really stressed in those days as I was preparing for my FRCR (Part I) exam while simultaneously carrying on with my medical practice. Sister Nivedita was intuitive enough to gauge that I was under tremendous strain. She soothed away all my apprehensions and promised to pray for me. She completed the treatment successfully without much side effects. On the day of discharge she blessed my son and me and went away. I hoped I would not see her again.

After five years she was back, this time with complaints of back pain. Bone metastasis was confirmed, that is, the disease had spread to the bones and she was in stage IV now. I couldn’t accept it – she had come at a very early stage, never neglected her treatment and came for regular follow up. As a true follower, she had always led a life devoid of sin, never harmed anyone, never even spoke or thought of doing a bad deed. I kept wondering, “How can God be so merciless? Why was she subjected to this suffering despite being a good soul? Is there a God at all?”

For the first time my patient counselled and comforted me. Sister Nivedita said, “ We are also part of the society. I am just like any other human being. Since I am at a risk of this disease I was afflicted by it. I knew beforehand that there was no absolute guarantee even at stage I of the disease. In God’s eyes, all of us are his children, then why should he give that extra privilege to me? At least my Lord won’t be blamed for being partial towards me. Now after suffering this pain I can help people who come to me for counselling. I have a better understanding of pain now. God has given me this opportunity to serve those people in
need.” I was astonished by her faith at this hour of crisis. Majority of the people diagnosed with cancer question “Why me?” but Sister Nivedita’s quiet acceptance of the disease restored my own faith in God.

We planned palliative radiation of 5 fractions to relieve her of the pain in her lower back. This time I made sure An unbroken spirit there was a lady technologist available beforehand. The same courage and smile that I saw five years back greeted me this time as well. She would never let go of the Bible. On the day of discharge she inquired about my exam and expressed happiness that I had passed with flying colours. She once again blessed us and left the hospital with a smile.

She had, in fact, taught me the most important lesson of my life – never lose trust on God. The pain and sufferings make you stronger in life. I can only pray that Sister Nivedita lives longer to motivate and comfort people like us.

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