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How Daljeet Saluja’s inspiring and valorous journey of uplifting fellow breast cancer patients helped lighten her own load

by Aiden

A phoenix rising. 

By Dolly Koghar

Back then, nobody dared call the ‘C’ illness by its name, and I was too young to understand that larynx cancer had taken away my maternal grandfather’s, Nana-ji’s, kirtan duty in the Gurudwara, and then took his life. Years later, the often-undetectable pancreas cancer robbed me of my Darjee, an ailment he’d mistaken for disabling back pain through most of his short life. Before them and since then, several loved ones have been stricken with some form or other of the dreaded ‘C’ and braved the recommended treatments, which sometimes are as cruel as the disease. Too few came through, while one too many succumbed!

It was in the early 2000s when I met Daljeet Saluja through her son, Karan, my son’s bum-chum. I’d returned here for good (fifingers crossed),and I had a life to rebuild and a home to set up; relations and connections to be reforged, and ones that I’d never quite established, since I’d been gone for far too long. Darjee was long gone, and even mummy was no more. But more and above, cancer was once again in the forefront of mylife; my very nearest and dearest relative was going through the horrible side-effects phase of chemotherapy and beyond being supportive and as available as I could be, I was powerless. I ached to do something more proactive; as if to atone or in vengeance of what cancer did or could do to the people I love.

Daljeet was already an active member of the Bangkok Breast Cancer (BBC) Support Group, a supportive group for patients of the renowned Professor Dr Kris Chatamra at BNH Hospital. I knew practically nothing about cancer, despite witnessing it enough; the prospect of communicating with patients and their families was beyond daunting; but Daljeet cajoled me into believing that I could do it, if I wanted to. That’s the Daljeet of our very first meeting. Her infectious cheer quickly puts one at ease, including patients who are in a state of disbelief and shock when they are first diagnosed. After which, they easily give themselves over to her genuinely caring nature and trust her to lead them through the jargon of whatever it is that needs to be done to conquer the cancer. She channels her own firm conviction of the power to heal, with the advice to align themselves completely with the doctor and God.

I joined the BBC, but it was difficult to work alongside Daljeet and not inevitably compare myself to her and find myself falling short – she went beyond just being supportive; she’d literally adopt the patient and their families. She’d coddle them and walk them through the ups and downs and their questions and fears and listen to their personal problems. She’d almost always sidestep her own life and be there during their surgeries and the necessary treatments and the near-unbearable side effects. When all the effort and treatments failed, she’s straightforward with doing what most of us in the support group would hate to do; prepare the patient for the nearing end. Yet, she’s comforting and urges them to leave nothing undone and unsaid. Nevertheless, her bravado lasts only till she reaches the sanctuary of the ladies’ room in the lobby. She shares in the family’s grief and remains their friend till always.

When asked why she’d go so far out of her way and how she joined the BBC, Daljeet tells me that she had seriously contemplated forming a lupus support group, prior to joining the foundation. She lost her younger sister after seven years of suffering to lupus, during which Daljeet researched extensively and aggressively for some way to minimise the disabling misery for her sister, since there is no known cure. She became proficient with juicing and the science of how certain fruits and vegetables or the combinations could either lessen or alleviate the discomforts of lupus, and otherailments. Her vision for the group was to spread the awareness further, and to learn more how to help lupus patients.

However, just then, a very dear friend gave up on living after being diagnosed with the last stages of cancer. Daljeet being Daljeet, coerced her and cajoled her and infused her own zest for life into that friend, which is something she continues to do to every patient. She’s very persistent and doesn’t know the meaning of the words, ‘give up,’ and neither does she let her patients do so. She coaxed the friend into putting up a good fight, and helped boost her immunity with her know-how on juicing and food discernment, which she’d delved into even deeper. Daljeet remains the favourite masi to the friend’s children; the sister who helped their mum live through many more of their milestones.

Coincidentally, shortly thereafter, just when Daljeet was deciding whether or not to stop working with her husband in the family jewellery business, another close friend, knowing Daljeet’s effusively chatty and outgoing personality, quickly drew her into joining the BBC. That day and today, almost two decades on, Daljeet continues to be a solid pillar outside Dr. Kris office and in the lives of his patients.

During Daljeet’s tenor as the chairperson, the BBC took a big leap outside of the clinic in BNH and their outreach programme was introduced. The group took appointments with factories and companies with large staff, and coordinated with the district heads on the outskirts of Bangkok to raise the public awareness of breast cancer and teach the importance of early detection of lumps in the breast by adopting the routine of self-examination. The outreach programme proved well worth its while – numerous people were discovered with lumps after being examined by nurses from Ramathibodi Hospital, with Dr. Rani Phlaphongphanich volunteering as the medical personnel overlooking the whole programme. Those found with lumps were then referred to the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital free of cost.

But fate sometimes plays a cruel trick! Some years ago, accompanying a family member with a suspicious-looking lump to Dr. Kris, Daljeet did her own overdue mammogram. The relative’s lump turned out benign, while her chart showed lumps that were revealed to definitively be cancerous. It was beyond ironic that someone helping others with breast cancer, should be stricken with the exact same affliction. And paradoxically, trouble never comes singly; Daljeet was surrounded on all sides with serious personal issues, and stress was high – a fact that she revealed could have triggered the cells to multiply abnormally. But never one to be cowed down easily, she quickly gathered her wits and her family’s support and prepared for surgery.

When asked if the prospect of the surgery didn’t scare her, she guffawed and told me that was her moment of epiphany. While waiting for her surgery, she noticed a man also waiting his turn, but who was scared beyond his wits. Daljeet zoomed in on his troubles rather than her own, and infused him with some of her natural optimism – and lo and behold! She realised that by shifting her attention from herself to another’s discomfort, all fears and worries left her. Thus was cemented Daljeet’s motto to use every opportunity to help whoever she can, in any way she can – even more than she’d already done prior to this personal tragedy.

Her first session of chemotherapy was bad, but Daljeet finds a way to makethingsrightandbright–nowthatsheherselfwasacancerpatient, she used it as the perfect opportunity to experiment on her nutrition and lifestyle, and see the benefits of what she’d been advising others. For example, she recounts how she managed to save her luscious hair by opting for the scalp cooling method, which is a helmet-like device which maintains her scalp at 18°C during chemotherapy. She then found a way to lessen the intense, searing heat of the radiation by chomping on the cool and refreshing chaokoey jelly while getting the treatment, and she also found that slices of frozen watermelon worked equally well. All these were ways to alleviate her own travails that she generously shared with others who were going through the same journey.

Would she opt to go through the – often protracted and painful – treatments, in hindsight? When asked this loaded question, without batting an eye, she emphatically tells me that she’s happy to be alive for longer and see her grandchildren growing up, and she’s very looking forward to welcoming her son’s soon-to-be-wife into the family.

Daljeet is a giver and she continues to use it to give of herself and of her knowledge, which now has people across borders and continents consulting with her or calling her just to cry and vent. But one can never be too careful and she has a whole retinue of doctors and nutritionists to whom she refers, as and when needed. But more and above, her heart and her arms stay wide open to comfort and console!

I’ll conclude this with a quote from a poem that I feel describes Daljeet to a tee, Drinking from My Saucer by John Paul Moore:

“I’m drinking from my saucer, ‘Cause my cup has overflowed.
If God gives me strength and courage, when the way grows steep and rough.
I’ll not ask for other blessings, I’m already blessed enough.
And may I never be too busy, to help others bear their loads.
Then I’ll keep drinking from my saucer, ‘Cause my cup has overflowed.” (Moore 12-16)

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