• Parul Deora Somani

Why "Cancer" Will Never Again be Just a Zodiac Sign For Me

Despite cancer having reared its ugly head in my family history during childhood, I spent most of the first three decades of my life viewing "cancer" as simply my astrological sign. I never foresaw learning of a genetic risk in my late 20s and needing to consider preventive surgical options while still in my child-bearing years. I never foresaw being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother and needing to undergo a bilateral mastectomy instead of being home nursing my newborn. I never foresaw cancer attempting to battle my mother once again ~30 years later. And I definitely never foresaw the combination of these experiences transforming my professional aspirations and defining my life's mission.


At the hair salon the day I shaved my head. (2014)
I AM a cancer warrior, and I WILL continue to share my experiences and learnings to help others.

Yet, here we are. As I reflect on the "I am and I will" theme of today's World Cancer Day 2020, I stand proudly and proclaim that I AM a cancer warrior, and I WILL continue to share my experiences and learnings to help others. It appears that even back in 2014 when I was still undergoing treatment, I had begun to realize that cancer would never be an experience that I package up with a bow and put on the back shelf. I share with you below the copy of a post that I originally published on November 25, 2014 in my cancer blog, providing a glimpse into my mind as a real-time cancer patient embarking on a path to recovery.


Cancer - It will never be just a zodiac sign


I loved astrology as a child. Like, a lot. There are still numerous books on a shelf in my old room at my parents’ house relating to astrology, palmistry, dream dictionaries, etc. It’s actually in my blood. My maternal great grand-father was a professional astrologer in India back in the day. He was titled the “Emperor of Palmistry” in all of India, and had published books on the profession. My dad is also pretty good at palm-reading, and I dabbled in it when younger as well. I’ve always been fascinated with research or (pseudo)sciences that are meant to help me better understand myself, my characteristics, my potential. In early adulthood I visited many “$5 psychics” for fun, but eventually had to self-impose a ban given how seriously I sometimes took them. A large portion of my childhood was spent specifically on astrology though, trying to understand how one’s personality, and possibly destiny, is influenced by their star sign.


Given my mid-July birthdate, I am a Cancerian. This is why I was particularly struck by the message on a whiteboard at Stanford’s infusion center months ago:  “Dear Cancer, I hope one day you are just a zodiac sign.”


A message in one of Stanford’s chemo infusion centers

I kept a picture of this message ever since, thinking it would be the finale post to my blog. I always thought that I’d deal with chemo for a few months, have a double mastectomy, spend some weeks recovering, and then have this cancer thing wrapped up by the end of 2014. At which time, I would bid farewell to cancer and let you all know that, going forward, it will once again be just a zodiac sign to me (though the hope that one day cancer itself will not exist will continue).


I can no longer say that is true. Perhaps it was naive of me to ever think that was possible to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t too far off on the timeline. There happened to be two mastectomies instead of one, and a whole set of months and a surgery related to reconstruction that I hadn’t accounted for (that will take me into early 2015), but the crux of the battle is essentially over. You all know the outcome of my first, left-side mastectomy – the pathology results confirmed my tumor entirely disappeared from the neoadjuvant chemo and my lymph nodes were never negative to begin with after all. At yesterday’s follow-up appointment, Dr. T reminded me that only ~1/3 of BC cancer patients achieve pCR (tumor entirely disappearing), but of those that do, regardless of the treatment plan that got them there, ~95% do not relapse going forward. In new news to all of you, Dr. T also confirmed that the pathology tests on the tissue from my recent right-side mastectomy were also cancer-free (as expected, but still, yea!).  So, sitting here today, I am technically “cancer-free” and should be telling you that cancer is now in my rear-view mirror.


The reality, however, is that cancer will never be just a zodiac sign to me ever again. Just in yesterday’s appointment, Dr. T warned me that patients are so go-go-go from the point of diagnosis through treatment, that they actually hit an emotional dip when it’s over from never having had the chance to really absorb everything that had transpired. I immediately began tearing up, reminded of the unexpected breakdown I had had weeks after my first surgery. We discussed how there is still the likelihood that I should take Tamoxifen, a daily pill for ~5 years with its own set of side effects, to minimize the risk of recurrence. We discussed how she wants me to attend a “survivorship clinic” to learn what to be mindful of going forward. We even discussed whether I’ve considered getting my ovaries removed down the road given my higher than average risk of ovarian cancer due to being BRCA1+.  She knows I’ve just been through a lot; as Dr. T put it, I’ve been “attacked” both physically and mentally since early June.  So, the plan is to just focus on recovery for the next few weeks and revisit these topics in the new year.


What this really means, however, is that there will always be new cancer-related topics to be addressing. In the coming days, it will be reminding myself about the little things that need to be or can be done as chemo side effects begin to reverse. Just today, I went to the threading salon for the first time since July, and upon seeing my just-barely-no-longer-bald hair, the aunti eagerly asked if I recently visited Tirupathi (an Indian temple where men and women shave their head and donate the hair).  Umm, no, I actually just underwent medical treatment. In the coming weeks, it will be focusing on physical therapy and how I can best recover from surgery. In the coming months, it will be completing the tissue expansions and implant surgery. In the coming years, it will be dedicating efforts to minimizing the risk of recurrence. In the coming decades, it will be addressing what risk my daughters are at and how they would like to confront it.


Going forward, I will continue to be a Cancerian. That said, I will also continue to be a cancer fighter and survivor. In the end, I think it may actually lead to a healthier and happier life.  We’ll see what the stars have planned for me.


P.S. In case you’re wondering, this will NOT be my last post after all.  I still have lots of thoughts to share :-)


Going forward, I will continue to be a Cancerian. That said, I will also continue to be a cancer fighter and survivor. In the end, I think it may actually lead to a healthier and happier life.  We’ll see what the stars have planned for me.

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Parul Somani

Mother. Warrior. Storyteller.


Parul is a healthcare executive and cancer survivor turned professional speaker championing health, resilience, and a positive mindset. As the Founder & CEO of Silver Linings, Parul combines her experiences as a young working mother diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 30s, a caregiver who transformed her parents' lives with her patient advocacy, and a businesswoman with 15+ years of experience in management consulting and executive roles in consumer, technology, and healthcare companies. Parul's mission is to help improve the state of healthcare by sharing her experiences, and inspiring others to live a healthy, thankful, and fulfilling life. She has shared her personal story through her cancer blog that's been read in ~80 countries, films on survivorship and mindset, TV and radio segments, podcast interviews, and public speaking engagements. More information about her story, speaking topics, and portfolio of work can be found at parulsomani.com.


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