At the age of 36, Dr. Ruby Kaur Bajaj was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. With a young family and finally feeling like she was living life to her fullest, she was shocked by the news. In this article, she shares her rollercoaster of emotions, how Sikhi helped her, and how she now feels that having cancer is a blessing.
I was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer
Many of the strongest women I’ve known have been Kaurs. Maybe within our love of Sikhi there lies an internal compass within us Kaurs, that gives us an amplified power which shines even through the most difficult of circumstances. Where that power comes from, my guide, some call it the universe, some say God, we call it Waheguru.
I never understood the capacity of Waheguru’s love for me until, at age 36, I felt a strange lump in my breast. My son was 4 and my daughter was 9, and I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) . TNBC is one of the more aggressive types of breast cancers with a higher relapse rate than most breast cancers. TNBC doesn’t really follow many “rules”. You see, it is not hormone positive, meaning it did not arise due to estrogen, progesterone, or hers-2 positive, like many of the other forms of breast cancer. So, there really is no known cause for it. It just happens. Maybe it’s due to a spontaneous genetic mutation, or maybe an unhealthy environment or mindset, or maybe stress. For me, it didn’t matter how I got it, but all that mattered now was what I actively did about it.
The radiologist came to me, her hands shaking, trembling almost, with worry in her eyes. I could see it in her soul, the concern. Finding it hard to get the words out of her mouth, not knowing quite the right way to tell me, and she simply said, “You have cancer.” I was 36 years old and I just couldn’t believe it. I became numb. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. I was on Cloud 9 mere seconds ago, starting to live my fullest life, and now this. But the universe works in the most strangest ways, right? At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. It was just pure shock. I didn’t want to believe it. Something inside me knew from the beginning, that it would be okay. Everything will be okay. Waheguruji always has your back. So I knew. “It’s ok, I gotchu, you’ll be fine,” that’s what I heard. I called my husband, and he asked “Should I come there now?” and I said “‘No, just go pick up the kids and I’ll deal with it for now. Until we have a final result, we won’t tell anybody.”
I went home and we cried, we cried together. And when we knew for sure, I told my 9 year old daughter. It was ironic because here we were doing langar seva to celebrate the blessing of my son’s 4th birthday, and the 2nd birthday of my nephew, with both sets of grandparents, and I just came out of a 3 tumor biopsy the day before. The doctors had advised me to bedrest, but I felt deep within me a need to do seva. I felt that I needed to do kirtan. Not for anyone else, but purely for me.
Waheguru Comforts Me
You see, ever since I was a child, when I was in a deep emotional state or difficult circumstance, I would go inward. I relied on my Sikhi. I would run into our Babaji’s room by myself and play a shabad on the vaaja and do kirtan to calm my mind and soul. It was something that always directed me on my path, throughout life. It was my meditation, my coping mechanism. And so, even in all that excruciating surgical pain that day, I felt the urge to do kirtan. I wasn’t very good, of course, but that truly never mattered to me. What mattered was that kirtan always connected me with my True Guru, my Waheguruji, and I craved for that connection. And at that very moment, unbeknownst to me, the Divine, being all knowing, had already created a path for me, full of love and support all around me. Waheguru’s blessings were all around me, and I was so grateful to be there, at that moment, because Waheguru knew what I needed without me even realizing it. My kids, my husband, all 4 of my parents, and my closest friends were there because Waheguru knew I would need their love and support for the long, long road that lay ahead. The question now was, how could I tell my young son? No one ever thinks about this, do they? How do you tell your 4 old that life was going to change and that he could no longer sleep on mommy’s bed anymore because he had the sniffles? How do you tell a child that mommy couldn’t go see him lead the class in his school play or be a part of morning with “Moms and Muffins”? Explaining mortality to a child is no easy task. Facing mortality is even harder.
It made me realize my place in this magnanimous universe. I learned humility rather quickly when I faced mortality.
Facing Death to Learn How to Live
The only way for me to face death was to learn what it meant to truly live. To actually be alive and see life as a gift.
We are all human. And so fortunate to live such privileged lives, especially in the United States. We have problems, of course, but not problems of everyday survival. Facing imminent mortality is something some people face on a daily basis in countries like Ethiopia or India. Such as mortality from hunger, disease, war, or from a lack of good healthcare . So when I faced cancer, I truly realized how fortunate I was. And I valued life so much more because of my fear of losing it.
How Do I Tell My Kids?
And so…it was then that the craziness began. The final report, the schedule of exams, chemo, surgery, radiation, more chemo, more surgery…etc etc etc.
That fear sometimes still takes over. The thought of not being there to kiss my son goodnight and smell his coconut washed hair as I tuck him to bed at night. The thought of missing out on being present when my daughter turns into a lady, who would be there for her? Who could she talk to? Would she miss not being able to talk to her mom, heart to heart and share her little secrets? It broke my heart, the very thought of missing out on the two most important gifts of my life.
And when that happens, anxiety, depression, sadness all take over, sometimes separately, sometimes all together, overwhelmingly. But it does still happen from time to time. Until finally, I give in to it all and just surrender. I give in to all the emotions and all the fears and finally accept the One Truth that remains for all of us living beings: that we are all mere mortals on this planet. We are all just trying to survive, some more ways than others, some more days than others. That surrender was the turning point for me. It gave me an internal permission to live with the quality of days, not just quantity of days. That surrender leads to a freedom like no other. A freedom and liberation allowing me to be present to each moment and live each second with sheer happiness and gratitude. Without the attachment to the outcome.
Now don’t get me wrong, hope is and will always be alive and well, but life isn’t attached to the fear of mortality. They are mutually exclusive. Once you live beyond the fear, you learn to be brave. So, living your best life becomes easy, as the outcome. I learned to live with gratitude, mindfulness and awareness.
Cancer as a Blessing
Cancer became a blessing for me. It showed me love in the most noble way. My parents, my mom and dad, who have always been there for me were there for me. My husband went with me to every appointment, my kids were taken care of. And even though I was going through chemo, the symptoms of immunosuppression, and losing my hair, my eyelashes, and my eyebrows; I had truly become the person I was destined to be, the person that Waheguruji created me to be. For the first time in my life, I was becoming me.
My Hair Was Me
My life changed because of cancer. The definition I had in my head for myself, the person I identified myself to be was completely questioned. Growing up, I prided myself in being the girl with the long hair. My hair came down to my mid calf, so it was pretty long. You may find that a little funny because hair, it’s such a normal thing for all of us, some grow it, others trim it, cut it, layer it, color it, etc etc. It really does connect us all, doesn’t it? For me, long hair gave me strength, it gave me power, wisdom, and guidance. It connected me to our Sikh history in a divine way. Our hair is symbolic.
My hair was my honor and pride. It was a jewel that was bestowed upon me by my Guru. It gave me courage, strength, duty, belonging, it gave me my identity. People looked to me for help, because I was the girl with the long hair.
So when I lost it, during chemo, I lost who I was. I was supposed to be helping others, and now I became someone who needed the help instead. It was so hard to understand that twist of fate because I truly did need the help. I needed help from my family, from my friends, and doctors, and health professionals, and so many others along the way.
It was so horrible and just sad to see myself “naked” in the mirror. A few times I scared myself because I just couldn’t recognize the woman looking back at me. It was so difficult, nerve racking, and scary. And when I have my doctors visits or scares even now, it’s still just as scary.
Asking for Help
So, I needed help. Most of all, I needed help from myself. I needed to learn to forgive myself for not taking care of my mental and physical health enough to get me here on cancers doorstep. Anyone can get cancer, and the thing is, I needed to stop blaming myself for it. I needed to help myself understand and realize that my true identity was never in my hair, it was in my heart and soul. And guess what, I still have that same heart and soul.
I didn’t realize it, but I thought I was only supposed to help others, so learning it was ok to ask for help and receive that help for myself was so so valuable. A lot of you might be feeling that, and that’s ok. I did too.
But you know, on an airplane, right before takeoff, the airhostess tells you if you’re travelling with a child that you must put on your own oxygen mask before theirs. The truth is, you can’t help others if you can’t first help yourself. And it was time for me to help myself, and receive help from others because I needed it.
I was the same person, with the same morality. My value system didn’t change, I still intended on helping others the best way I knew how. And not having hair, but being the shiny bald headed woman with no eyebrows or lashes, didn’t make me weaker. It didn’t define me. In fact, it made me realize that faith in myself was all that I ever truly needed, to help myself or others.
Faith in ourselves is so important for survival. Self-love, mindfulness, and value for your being, is so important for anyone’s survival in life, let alone through cancer.
As you can see, my hair did eventually grow back again once chemo stopped. Ironically, like the veins of a tree, my hair growth is layered. With every time I began and ended a new type of chemo, my hair grew a new layer. So although, to the naked eye my hair looks “layered”, its significant for each step of growth I’ve had through this metamorphosis. I began to live my best life as a result of cancer. I began to grow into the person I had always dreamed to be. For the first time, I became me.
Dr. Ruby Bajaj is a Cancer Superhero who’s using her story as an ignition for good in the world. She first created SuperHero Lifestyle during chemo, eventually opening it up to self-empowering, educational medical content to lead, educate, and empower others to live their best life.