Basking in the glow of being a first-time mum, Meghna was blissfully unaware that her world was about to be torn apart by cancer.
Meghna and her husband Prashant first met and fell in love as hotel management students at the Institute of Mumbai. After he graduated, they juggled a long-distance relationship, spending a small fortune on phone calls, but it paid off. They tied the knot in 1998. However, busy building individual careers in hospitality, they spent their first months as newlyweds in separate cities, with Meghna in Mumbai and Prashant in Chennai.
And Then There Were Three
It took a few months before Prashant could finally move to Mumbai. Our married life really started from then. We kept busy setting up home and getting on with our careers. There were times we’d meet outside staff locker rooms with only enough time for “hi” and “bye” between opposing shifts. We struggled to get days off together and find time for each other but that comes with a career in the hospitality industry.
Things changed when we relocated to the UK in 2003. Within two years we bought our first house in London, and soon after, I was pregnant. My pregnancy was a breeze, although giving birth was another story altogether! It was tough, but 36 hours later we were holding our bundle of joy. Ishaan brought a lot of joy into our lives. I loved him since the day I realised I was pregnant and more so after he was born. I was happy and enjoying motherhood. Ishaan was an easy child to look after, something I was soon to appreciate more than I could have imagined.
When It All Began to Fall Apart
Soon after Ishaan was born in 2006, Prashant started having health problems. He developed a fungal infection and his arms and legs suffered from intense itching. A GP in London treated the infection, but the itching persisted. He was referred to a skin specialist, where everything from gluten allergy to eczema was being looked into. This went on for one and a half years. In the meantime, Prashant was losing appetite and weight, feeling fatigued and itching continuously.
In December 2007, he developed lumps around his neck and within a week they were the size of golf balls. His doctor asked to see him urgently. I will never forget that day. He came home from the doctor’s appointment, looked at me and my mother and calmly announced that he had cancer. Our first reaction was: “Please don’t joke with us and tell us seriously what the doctor said.” He almost laughingly said that this is exactly what the doctor said.
Living with Cancer
The first round of chemo in 2008
Prashant was officially diagnosed with stage 4-b Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, with a 15-cm tumour in his chest cavity. We put everything on hold and returned to India for treatment. Despite having family around us, it was an isolating experience for me. It seemed that everyone was looking to me for support and strength. I felt that if I were to fall apart emotionally, it would have a domino effect on our parents and families.
In New Delhi, Prashant started chemotherapy, undergoing a total of twelve treatment sessions over a span of six months. It was a difficult time. I wanted to be by his side for support, but Ishaan wasn’t allowed in the ward. Our friends helped by babysitting him at the hospital, but the toughest part was leaving Prashant afterwards. Ishaan would cry and be so traumatised that I finally decided to stop bringing him to the hospital. This meant there were times when father and son didn’t see each other for up to five weeks at a time. This was probably the most difficult choice I ever had to make.
(See also: Telling my Children that I have Cancer)
Thankfully, Prashant tolerated the chemo well and that gave us hope for a full recovery. The cumulative effect made the treatment tougher each time, but the side effects were manageable. He lost all his hair but seemed to be getting better. We returned to our lives in London where his treatment continued.
Fighting the Darkness
Finding purpose: The thing that kept me sane was my son. I was so thankful to have him – Ishaan was a great motivation for us to fight the cancer.
There were times I felt really alone. With no domestic help, it fell to me to decide on meals, cleaning, laundry – while juggling hospital visits. Helplessly watching my husband go through so much pain was very tough to deal with. But the hardest part was maintaining a façade of normalcy for the sake of our child. I tried to do everything like I would if nothing was wrong, so that Ishaan didn’t feel neglected. I didn’t want him to miss out on any part of his childhood experiences.
Some nights when I was alone and Ishaan was asleep, I would worry about the future. Many times, I thought Prashant may not make it. I wondered if I would be able to give the life we planned for our son on my own. I worried that Ishaan might forget his father growing up. We would have missed Prashant at all the special occasions in the years to come. Trying to stay strong, I would make mental plans for all what-if situations.
On holiday in Jaipur with family…just before the relapse
The doctors at King’s College Hospital gave Prashant the all-clear in August 2008. We rejoiced that he had overcome this terrible illness and was almost back to his old self. He went back to work, eager to make up for lost time. The following January, we went on a holiday to India to celebrate his recovery with the family. We enjoyed the two weeks to the fullest, but there was something bothering Prashant. On the last day of our vacation, he approached his doctors for a check-up.
Hitting Rock Bottom…
The 10-hour flight from Delhi to London was the worst of our lives. A PET scan had revealed the lymphoma was back and more aggressive than before; it now permeated his entire body. For the first time we felt unsure of what was to come. The doctors prescribed a stronger dose of chemotherapy, to be administered through a drip over five days in hospital. This was to happen once a month over three months. He also had a Hickman line inserted as his veins had hardened from the first round of chemo.
Tough choices: I felt guilty for all the times my husband was suffering in hospital and I could not be there. Once while undergoing chemo, his blood pressure was low, and he fell trying to go to the toilet. I really felt terrible that I hadn’t been there to help him, but I had to be home with my son.
When Prashant came home between hospital stays, he needed a lot of care. I had to do the dressing for the Hickman line catheter and give him injections on many occasions – giving birth wasn’t the worst after all! On the plus side, Ishaan got to spend a lot of time with his father. He was too young to understand the seriousness of Prashant’s condition but in a way, that helped. With him as our little stress buster, we somehow managed to get through all this.
…and Finding Salvation
Trying to stay positive ahead of the autologous transplant
As the cancer persisted, the doctors suggested an autologous transplant where Prashant’s own stem cells would be used. We thought that this would be the last we would see of the cancer. But while preparing for the transplant in June 2009, he had another relapse. The doctors said that this transplant wouldn’t save him but was only for the chemotherapy. It hit us then we had to consider this may be terminal. I was devastated.
We were told that a donor transplant was our only hope. We had to regroup and refocus, renew our faith and stay positive that a donor would be found quickly. This was by far the most difficult phase of his treatment. Getting donors was hard and finding one that matches all 32 parameters is nothing short of a miracle. Finally, after fighting several bouts of infections, Prashant had a donor transplant in January 2010. It was a success!
My Beloved Son
One incident is etched in my memory from the time Prashant came home after his autologous transplant, a week before Ishaan’s third birthday. I carried him down to the living room, saying, “Look who’s here!” Upon seeing Prashant, Ishaan buried his face against my neck as if his father were a stranger. My heart broke. But Prashant did not look anything like Ishaan remembered. He had lost all his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes, his skin had changed colour from the chemo, and he was half his size. But as Prashant started talking to him, he realised this was Daddy!
Ishaan is almost 13 years old now. He doesn’t remember much of what happened during the days Prashant was sick. When he was about 10, I explained the details, telling him how aggressive the cancer was and how much treatment his father needed to survive. We took him to the hospital to meet the staff and doctors who treated Prashant. He asks plenty of questions and I answer them all the best I can.
I felt the impact on Ishaan much more when he was younger. He had separation anxiety and took a long time to not cry when he went to school. A gentle and kind child, he is quite sensitive and gets hurt easily. Looking back now, I also feel that I missed out on his milestones or could not truly experience them. The focus was so much on Prashant’s condition while Ishaan was growing up. I have no pictures of those ‘firsts’ or documented dates of when they happened. Ishaan was a quiet and easy-going child so maybe somewhere we took him for granted. Now when he asks me about his childhood I feel at a loss.
The Kulkarni family on holiday in India, 2018
Today I’m grateful Prashant has been able to live a full life. Now Assistant Director F&B at Fairmont Singapore and Swissôtel the Stamford, this year he even completed the vertical marathon, scaling all 72 floors. 10 years back we could not have imagined he would achieve all this. Going forward, I am very confident that Prashant is going to be fine.
Regardless, I have learnt to live in the present and not worry about the future. I have become a stronger person and no longer let the little things bother me. These same values I impart to Ishaan. It’s important that we appreciate what we have and be generous in giving back to others in need. I remind him that his father is alive because of someone else’s generosity.
I have experienced first-hand what finding a donor means to the patient battling for his life and his family. A blood stem cell or bone marrow transplant is often the last chance of survival for many patients with leukaemia, lymphoma and other blood-related diseases. Back then we had 40 of Prashant’s relatives tested for a match. There were none. If not for bone marrow registries and kind souls, my son would not have a father today.
Now based in Singapore with her family, Meghna Kulkarni, 43, has returned to the hospitality industry as Executive Housekeeper at Swissôtel Merchant Court. She shares her story in the hopes of encouraging everyone who is eligible to sign up as a bone marrow donor.
The Bone Marrow Donor Programme is a non-profit organisation responsible for building and managing Singapore’s only register of volunteer bone marrow donors. For more information, please visit www.bmdp.org.