Revisiting her battle with breast cancer, acclaimed danseuse Dr Ananda Shankar Jayant, in a stirring discussion with Jamaican Olympic track star and cancer survivor Novlene Williams-Mills on BBC radio, has spoken about the power of channeling one’s passion to “conquer” a disease that dispirits as much as it kills.
“Cancer comes to us with so much melodrama, so much clutter that we already give in before we are even able to deal with it. What really kept me centered and moored was my dance. I was so focused on dance that I wasn’t mentally going into the negative space cancer was taking me to. That helped me deal with the physical changes,” Ananda said.
The Padma Shri-winning exponent of Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi was speaking with Williams-Mills on The Conversation, a BBC World Service radio programme that brings together two women from different cultures to share their experiences on a select topic. Their individual stories about overcoming cancer were broadcast in a half-hour episode on Monday that is now available as a podcast on the BBC website.
“The first feeling that I had upon learning in 2008 that I had stage 1 cancer was one of shock and anger. Until then, a stage to me was something I danced on. As a classical dancer, I have learnt the nine rasas or the navarasas: love, laughter, sadness, anger and fear. I knew how to emote fear, bhayanaka, through an expression or hand gesture. That day, I learned what fear was,” said Ananda,
What really hurt, she revealed, was not that the diagnosis showed up her mortality, it was the time away from dance and performance that her body would need to fight the cancer and recover from the surgery and successive radiation and chemotherapy cycles.
“You are at the top of your game. You have plans and performances lined up. Cancer treatment is a time-consuming process – a minimum of one year and often more. For performing artists or sportswomen, our time in the physical arena is limited and you don’t have time to lose,” Ananda said.
Her own treatment would take about two years: following a lumpectomy, she went through four chemo cycles and 33 days of radiation, four more chemo cycles and a year-long herceptin treatment.
“Though it was sheer torture even to climb the stairs, I had decided from day one that I wasn’t going to stop dancing through the treatment. It isn’t easy to keep cheer when you go from beautiful to bald literally overnight. I would take a four or five day break after chemotherapy and then get back to my studio and help my protesting body relearn the techniques, the mudras,” Dr Jayant said.
“The treatment impacts performance levels but I told myself that I would not submit or succumb. The important thing is to dip into your core strength and mentally go to that other place which comes from something you love doing and are really passionate about. Something that animates and moves you,” she added.
Williams-Mills, who was in the middle of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London when she was diagnosed but went on to a podium finish, echoed this sentiment. She noted about how running had provided an escape.
In 2010, two years removed from her diagnosis, Ananda received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for Bharatnatyam. Over the decade that has followed that first report and recovery, Ananda has received more accolades and a wider audience. She is now also a much sought-after motivational speaker.
A TED talk she delivered in 2009 on fighting cancer with dance has been ranked among the top 12 Incredible TED talks on cancer. In 2015, The Huffington Post rated it the first of the five greatest TED talks by Indians.
“When someone has high blood pressure, a heart attack, or even diabetes, people wear it like a badge. When you hear cancer, everyone succumbs to it. It hits both body and mind. The message I deliver in my talks is about not letting it overwhelm you. Ride the cancer through your passion,” Ananda said.
The podcast of Ananda’s appearance on The Conversation is available for listening and download at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p052yb20.
“Both Novlene and I have had our tryst with breast cancer while we were both at the top of our respective careers, physical conditions and form. Our stories are rather similar: my own story of dancing through cancer and Novlene’s of running through cancer. It was indeed wonderful to meet across the air waves, a four-time Olympian,” Ananda said.
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