Rendezvous with Ginger-it-Up
(Interview taken by Mani Mukhija)
Making an Impact When Adversity Strikes: Meet the Colon Cancer Survivor Ravina Sehwani Kashyap
Most people experience countless emotions as they learn to live with cancer. Feelings of fear, uncertainty, denial, anger, guilt, stress, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, sadness and depression are all a normal part of the cancer experience.
However, for some people, a cancer diagnosis brings renewed clarity and purpose to life which in turn brings “Hope”. Ravina is one of those intrepid personalities who is a constant fighter against the Big ‘C’. She has been a traveler and an adventurer since her early childhood. Her free-spiritedness made her popular with the name “The Gypsy” among her family members. Currently living in the United States (in Charlotte, NC at present) with her family, she still believes that she’s a hard-core ‘Bombay-ite’ and holds a sentiment of going back to her family home with the ocean in front someday.
Life was going easy when the adversity struck upon her. She was diagnosed with Colon Cancer. This was the moment when all her joys and dreams seemed to abandon her and the reality was worse than any nightmare. Yet amidst all the pains and sufferings, she found the path towards spirituality which gave her peace. She refocused her heart, mind and soul from serving herself and her loved ones to serving others in the community who are needy.
Ravina has not only endured and coped, but she has progressed to a point where she has evolved in her life as a Social Worker. She learned to identify how and why it is important to give back to the society. She’s a founding member of a Non-Profit Organization called ‘QCS’ (Queen City Sahelis). Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. This is what has made Ravina fearless and more confident to handle her cancer.
Her Resilience,fighter-spirits against cancer and faith in the ‘Higher Power’ prove that there are always better ways to handle the situation when the adversity strikes unexpectedly. Her zeal and perception towards life is an inspiration for everyone who gives-up easily when life throws challenges upon them. She has been fighting against a life-threatening illness, yet making an impact to her own life simply by not being a ‘quitter’.
I have been fortunate to meet Ravina at a common friend’s party. After that we had a few personal friendly meetings wherein I got to know so much more about her. Knowing Ravina personally is an absolute honor. I have been trying to learn so much from her life’s experiences and thought it’s worth bringing up those lessons to my readers too.
So, please read on as I welcome Ravina on this special Rendezvous New Year Edition. I encourage you all to leave your comments below this post and wish Ravina a Happy & Healthy Life by leaving your Thoughtful wishes in the comments section below.
Mani: We’re grateful that you’ve decided to share your battle against Colon cancer with us. It’s heart-wrenching to hear about your illness. However, I am confident that this interview would surely serve as a dose of inspiration for those who are going through the same phase. Let’s begin looking into your pre-cancer days. Could you introduce a bit about yourself, your family and career?
Ravina: To be honest, I was blessed to be born in Mumbai into a very forward thinking, highly professional and well respected family. The first child after a whole generation put me in a very envious spot. I managed to dominate my cousins and siblings from both sides of my family and soak in all the love. My dad’s passion for travel took us too many places. We were the envy of many. My earliest memories of my childhood go back to when I was 2.5 yrs. old as recalled by my mom. We were at this quaint hill resort, Matheran and I was trying to give a cookie to a group of monkeys there. It bit me on my finger and it was literally my first experience of ‘Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” My mom often chides me jovially on the sharp memory i had going that far back into my childhood. Then I have memories going horse-riding in Nainital or picking wildflowers with my dad on the slopes of Mahabaleshwar. Some other beautiful ones are going to Haridwar, the holy destination of the river ganges with my much adored grandparents. As you can see most of my memories are of my travails of travels. On my life map I can see now why. Even presently my best memories are of my travels. I would like to call myself a Free Spirit and my family has nicknamed me The Gypsy. I have to admit I did have a very privileged childhood. My fondest memory are of the sunset off the Arabian Sea a few 100 yards from my home and of playing in puddles of water wearing colorful raincoats in the warm rains in the Monsoon season.
As I grew older I knew I was different than most. I had very different desires than most of my friends. Even though I excelled at academics I was considered average in every field. There was always someone better than me. I did not have the competitive spirit that others did. Now I realize it may have been a good thing but the growing up years were not easy. I did have this innate feeling of restlessness though that I had big things coming my way. I felt I had a message to share with the world, to leave a mark, to inspire. I felt I had a calling. I came from a family of educators and enjoyed academics as much as I enjoyed sports and a busy social life. I used to indulge in Public Speaking and even completed a certificate program in Interior Decoration.
As a teenager I wanted to do good in the world so I joined the Rotaract Club. But as life goes on that burning desire took a backseat. I met my husband at a very young age and we had a whirlwind romance that was the talk of the town.
I gave up Law School and an aspiring career to follow my husband to the USA. Dilip comes from a business family and we both come from very different upbringings. It posed a challenge often in our lives but as they say, opposites attract. Looking back we had an idyllic life raising 2 beautiful amazing children. But not without our share of problems. It took us years of changing careers and goals and geographical locations to obtain the coveted GC in this country. I worked as an accountant for almost 20 years and managed the family business accounts. And we pretty much had no family support not unlike many others.
Though I have been out of Mumbai for over 25 years now, I spontaneously call myself a Bombayite / Mumbaikar even today when asked. Mumbai is an emotion as I read somewhere, a passion and I dream of going back to live in our family home with the ocean in front someday.
Mani: When and how was your Colon cancer discovered, and how did you and your family deal with the news?
Ravina: Around 2012 I started dealing with gut issues on and off and I put them off as the onset of diabetes. In April 2014 my parents were visiting us to celebrate my daughters HS graduation along with my niece. We had plans to go for a cruise and to Disney etc but little did we know what we had in store. We were in Washington DC and I woke up and just dropped to the floor like a rag doll. Dilip and my dad rushed to pick me up and get me seated and I passed out a second time. My mother had already been complaining like I looked like I had anaemia. A few minutes later I felt fine and promised my family to go see a doctor when we got back to Charlotte. We found out then that my haemoglobin was a 6.2 and I had to go in for a blood transfusion. Finally I had to have a colonoscopy whereupon they found a 4cm malignant tumor in my sigmoid colon. It was April 24th, our anniversary when Dr Gaspari broke the news to us and we were devastated. Simran was getting ready for her HS exams and graduation and between making a decision for colleges and Krish was only 11 yrs old. My parents were in shock as this was supposed to be a visit for a joyous occasion. We did not even tell my mom about it till the day before I had to go in for chemotherapy. We did not know how to deal with a life threatening disease and were totally ignorant regarding cancer and were at the mercy of the doctors. We had to teach ourselves a whole different lifestyle. Blood transfusions, Colonoscopies, chemotherapy and radiation to begin with followed by 4 surgeries (7 in my lifetime as of yet) all in my abdominal region alone and 4 other outpatient procedures. None of us were prepared to deal with this blow we had been dealt with. We were humbled and figured out the meaning of humility. God was now very close to our heart. I had to prepare myself to go through 6 months of chemotherapy and other close calls. I did not see the outside of the hospital for 10 days. My parents were visiting us to celebrate my daughter’s High School Graduation which got totally eclipsed by this earth shattering event in our lives. For one who had been in a hospital only for the birth of her children or someone who only met with doctors at their homes and not their clinics (most of my friends are doctors) this was a 180 degree turn. By this time I have met with Oncologists, Thoracic surgeons, I surgeons. Pulmonologists, Radiation Specialists, Endocrinologists etc. to name a few. Earlier I didn’t even know what the function of each specialization was.
In 2016, they again found 2 tumors in my left lung that staged me with Stage 4. I had to undergo radiation and chemotherapy again. 6 months after that as recently as Dec 2017 I was diagnosed with a relapse again with another 2 cm mass in the same area and progressed to Palliative Care. The cancer has ravaged my body over and over again but not my spirit. In the process I lost my hair but not my zest for life. Happy to say that my hair came back with a vengeance to prove a point. I should hate my cancer but I don’t. It has been my teacher as have other difficult experiences leaving me with many learnt lessons. In my opinion every hardship is a stepping stone to ones learning process.
Mani: How long were you in treatment? What helped keep your spirits up and gave you support during this period?
Ravina: On April 26th 2014 I had to have an emergency surgery to remove the tumor. I did not see the outside of the hospital or the sunlight for 11 days. Then I was given 5 weeks to recuperate from my surgery before I could begin 6 months of a chemotherapy regimen called FOLFOX. Chemo changed a lot of things for me. Physically I lost weight and most of my hair. I developed severe neuropathy in my hands and feet that hampered my daily activities. Mentally I got something referred to as brain fog. I became very forgetful and would register everything a bit late. Emotionally I felt emotionless. But the one thing that kept me going was that I turned to spirituality.
My faith in the Higher Power grew stronger and I started accepting my fate positively. I got over my fears and insecurities from things like being a pleaser and always being indecisive to my fear of death. Also another thing that kept me going were my friends. A good friend created a Sign Up genius where a group of friends signed up to bring me food 3 days a week. Their visits to drop off food became the high point of my days and we would sit down for cups of tea and just talk. I did not lose courage and decided that I would keep my spirits up as much as my energy would allow. My family decided we would travel between my chemos and we made 2 trips to Myrtle Beach (where Dilip owned a business) and in July we visited Montreal and Quebec. In Sept I postponed my chemo by a week to go to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend’s 50th b’day. I knew travelling kept me and my family healthy and my mind off my sickness Ever since we have made travelling to places one of the most important goals in our lives and have made some unforgettable memories.
Mani: Obviously, cancer puts your whole life on hold. Do you remember a specific moment when you were hit by this realization? How did you turn this adversity around?
Ravina: I don’t think I remember a specific moment but every day little things would have to be put on hold and it would be a bit more frustrating. I have had to deal with 2 further relapses as recently as Dec 2017 and sometimes I feel I take 1 step forward only to take 10 steps back. But in the bigger scheme of things, when I had to deal with the reality of my own mortality I landed up doing a lot of things that I would never have had the courage or the intention to before my diagnosis. I have always had stage fright but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone so I participated in a bhangra a couple years back. Currently I agreed to play a small but pivotal part in a play. I went back and found myself a job. I worked FT for the first time in 18 years in the IT Industry till I had my first relapse and then decided to work PT in a Title 1 school. I decided I would challenge my body and see how far I could manage. I have to share this one incident which will be a high point of our family memories. In Aug 2016, we were in Capri Italy visiting the Blue Grotto. We had hired a semi pvt. yacht but when we got there, it was closed to visitors as it was high tide. I got tears in my eyes as I had dreamt of visiting the Blue Grotto when we saw some other brave tourists diving into the deep blue Mediterranean waters from their pvt. boats. FYI the blue grotto (a world heritage site) is a small cave which tourists can get into only by boat during low tide. My kids decided that they wanted to do the same. It was very risky and I am not sure where this voice came from inside me that I too would jump into the ocean. The 3 of them looked at me in disbelief and a couple of others on our boat also volunteered to go for it. Our boat captain told us he wasnt responsible for any mishaps and gave us some life jackets and everyone dove into the huge waves. We all swam into the blue grotto with the waves beating around us. It was almost eerie. There were a total of 10-12 people there and all of us looked at each other victoriously at being the craziest people on earth. The grotto was totally dark and when we turned around in the cave we all witnessed the most beautiful sight ever. As we struggled with the waves the sun’s rays shone down on them to give us the most beautiful colors of azure, violet,burning yellows and oranges and a deep blue. Our eyes had stars in them and we all were in a trance till a giant wave enveloped us and threw us further into the grotto. We realized it was getting filled with higher waves and the entire group fought the oncoming current to swim back to our respective boats. We 4 held hands in the ocean before we climbed aboard and I am not sure where I got the courage to do something as silly as what I did but at that moment I knew I had had the experience of a lifetime and I had had my brush with death and done something that someone who may live to a 100yrs and never experience. I think that was the day I overcame a lot of my fears and realized how fortunate we were to create these memories. Most people pride themselves in visiting the Blue Grotto, a world heritage site, laying down in a boat but we went in swimming. BTW I believe some of the best memories in life are never recorded or caught on camera.
I shared this experience to tell you that I never put my life on hold but I did things that some may never ever experience. I dont think i would have ever done that if i did not have my cancer diagnosis. It’s all about ones perspective to life. I am the eternal optimist and I believe in turning every adverse situation into a positive. I have other passions besides travelling and writing that take up a lot of my time are cooking, photography and meditation or listening to inspirational speeches and spiritual sermons on days when I have been physically a bit under with chemo etc.
Mani: It’s inspiring to see how you have pushed through the darkest period and coping up with your illness. What have you learned from this experience?
Ravina: OMGGG I could go on. The most important lesson I learnt is everything is transient in life. What I got out of this is that foremost I learnt to live in the present. I dont plan much into the future anymore taking each day as it comes. I treat each day that I wake up without the aches and pains as a gift from above.
Secondly, I have learnt to appreciate the little things in life. I realize how fortunate I am to have the unconditional love of my family including Prince, our shihtzu. Especially my husband who has been a rock solid support. He has loved me more with each passing day even when I was down and hated my ravaged self. Relationships are transient so cherish every moment and let the bad ones pass. I have learnt that expectations from others only lead to hurt.
I have learnt to overcome my fears especially my fear of death. Living for the day has prepared me to look at death in the eye and freely discuss it with even with those who avert their eyes when the topic of death comes up. I wish the world would think of it more simplistically as Death is the only certainty we have in life. It always helps to talk about it. These are times when I miss being part of a support group where it maybe more freely discussed. I would maybe love to read my own eulogy someday.
Above all, I have learnt how to love myself. I realize I carried the ghosts of my insecurities in me for so long. It was such a burden. It is not easy for people to say they love someone let alone to oneself but when you do so one feels so free of any constraints holding them back. One does not need to hear it from anyone else. If one cannot love oneself, we internalize our feelings. That is when cancers happen to us. So learn to hold yourself in high regard as you are your own best advocate. I realize that in my belief in the goodness of the world I would let people walk all over me as I was a pleaser and a do gooder. But one can never please everyone. I acknowledged that the world is not always a safe place filled with the bad and the good and that everyone has struggles in their lives. I realize forgiveness is important but in forgiving do not give away your power to someone else. Forgive for your own wellbeing and not with the intention to be forgiven in return because the other side may not be at the same level as yourself.
Cancer has taught me many lessons and thus I treat it as a much dreaded teacher. I treat it with reverence and I hope that it will leave me alone someday soon. I hope to live a long and full life to see my children thrive in life.
Mani: You’ve not only endured and coped, but you’ve progressed to a point where you evolved in your life as a Social Worker. You truly learned to identify how and why it is important to give back to the society. You’re a founding member of a Non-Profit Organization. Please tell us about QCS. Getting involved in such activities brought changes to your life. Please share your perspective on this.
Ravina: I went back to teaching part time at a Title 1 (school serving over 90% children living under the poverty line) elementary school. I have been tutoring while I was undergoing chemo and radiation as it gave me satisfaction in doing my bit for humanity. I was blessed with the grace of God and my practice of Nichiren Buddhism to be able to manage my work alongside my health challenges.
I had challenged myself to see if I could handle it and I feel I succeeded. In school I share Parle G biscuits and Indian bindis as rewards for these children in return for their cooperation. These children are growing up in constant defense mode and come with many issues. Many of them suffer with learning disabilities, homelessness, abuse, violence and immigration issues and they are the true survivors. They have forgotten what is innocence and many like me that work in these schools work hard to do their best for them. It is always overwhelming to see the happiness on their faces when they get rewards and treats to make them feel accomplished.
On that note, I would like to mention that I am a founding member of a nonprofit organization called QCS since its inception over 7 years back. We work with underfunded charities to support seniors in need, Victims of Domestic Violence, underprivileged people with disabilities and a Title 1 school (different from the one I work at). We organize quarterly events and a grand gala once every 2 years (next one is in 3 weeks – Feb 3rd) and donate the proceedings to benefit the charities we support. I also served as the President of our community association in 2015.
I am also very excited to work on starting a support group for Indians who have been diagnosed with a life threatening disease and their families. I feel there is a dearth of the same and most people in our community are written off as incapable to survive in the regular world and judged for having the disease. They live in guilt and have no one to turn to. Especially the Indian community does not feel it is easy to ask for help and feel that one has to stay strong all the time. I am in talks regarding the same and working on a blueprint to make this a reality.
Mani: What are your biggest accomplishments Ravina?
Ravina: The biggest one is that I am peace with myself. My zest for life is unending and I am like a sponge ready to soak in knowledge and information. Thus I feel an accomplishment is not the goal. I enjoy the journey. I want to keep doing what I love. I paint and sing in my free time and it gives me solace. I am a peoples person but am starting to enjoy my own company and welcome silence in my life too these days. I am well-travelled so anymore travelling that I can get off my bucket list is a bonus to me. Similarly what I have achieved with my experiences in relations, career etc. is good enough too. Anything else that comes my way I accept with open arms. Success is so relative and most people feel they have arrived in life when success or accomplishments are measured by the money, house, car or material things one has but ultimately success is your personal happiness or it can be an endless punishment.
Mani: Writing certainly heals! You have recently started writing on your blog. Tell us more about your blog “Staying True”?
Ravina: On a personal level, my goal is to complete my book of short stories as soon as I can. I have also recently delved into the world of blogging. It is in its infancy stage and is a bit of a colicky baby these days due to my recent health issues that have come up. I am amazed at the world of social media and the huge audience out there. My blog is called Stayingtrue.co and it is an inspirational and travel blog with the aim to inspire readers with life lessons and life management skills. Please do check it out and forgive its appearance. It’s a work in progress. Travelling has continued to be my passion and I have made over 20 trips to different and far flung locations and back home to India in the past 4 years all while undergoing treatments. My short stories are by products of my travel diaries, my imagination and my experiences of lessons learnt.
Mani: Whom do you admire the most in your life?
Ravina: I would have to say Oprah. I admire this woman’s work, not only is she famous she has also laid out her life in service of others. Her shows and magazine and TV channel all are so inspiring to many countless women like you and me. She comes across as so humble and down to earth. Her recent award at the Golden Globes made history and she definitely deserves it. Her story makes people believe in dreams coming true.
Mani: Describe yourself in three words?
Ravina: Trusting, Relentless and Spiritual.
Mani: What is your favorite Mantra/Quote that keeps you inspired?
Ravina: Live and Let Live.
Mani: Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are living with cancer or who have just been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness?
Ravina: First of all I wish people would not think that this is something that will not happen to them. If it happened to me who is a nonsmoker and hardly consumes alcohol and don’t enjoy meats much and it is not genetic then it could happen to anyone. For the same reasons please do not ignore symptoms that persist.
Secondly if it does happen do not be afraid of death and enjoy what time you have with the ones who are precious to you. Stop stressing over the little things in life as there truly are people who struggle just to stay alive. Also do something that you absolutely love.
Mani: Any other messages that you would like to share?
Ravina: Keep the faith and remember everything happens for a reason.
Mani: Ravina, you are a true inspiration! Thanks for taking the time to share your ups, downs, and new views on life that helped you overcoming your fears and fight against the adversities.