She was given 6 months to live. But cancer didn't factor in the ferocity of her love
Battling triple negative breast cancer, Brinda Robin is a force of nature
Two years ago, the only C anyone was scared of was Covid-19. Brinda Robin was no different. Right before starting a new job in 2021, she scheduled an annual health checkup. Little did she know that a few routine tests were about to spin her life around 180 degrees. A suspicious mammogram and ultrasound led Robin to get her right breast biopsied and she was diagnosed with stage 3-C triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) a highly aggressive and invasive form of cancer with a poor prognosis. There’s a 31% prevalence of TNBC in Indian women.
“The doctors were very hopeful with the initial diagnosis. We had a plan of treatment and I responded well for the first year. When the cancer reoccurred and spread to other organs, given the aggressive nature and not knowing how I would respond to other medications, in June 2022, I was given six months to live. Despite that, here I am optimistic, delighted and living my life, doing my workouts, taking chemotherapy, and planning my next trip,” she says.
Robin celebrated her 46th birthday on September 18, 2023. This is her story in her own words.
“In 2021, I was worried about getting COVID just like everyone else. I never imagined walking out diagnosed with the other C, as we like to joke at home. With no family history of breast cancer, I put on my WebMD hat after the biopsy and ruled out the possibility. My husband, Alex, was working in Japan at the time and my elder sister had flown in to stay with me after the biopsy, as she did not want me to be alone. We even did a breast exam but didn’t feel a lump. We laugh about it now because I was standing topless, and we were so focused on the exam that we forgot to close the windows facing the road. But all it took was one phone call from my doctor to prove all my theories wrong. I was crushed to learn that I had breast cancer. I sat through endless conference calls that morning as tears wet my cheeks, not knowing what the future held for me.
The cancer was diagnosed on my right breast and the lymph nodes under the right arm, so a locally advanced stage 3-C triple negative breast cancer. It tests negative for estrogen and progesterone receptors and excess human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) protein. If you test positive for any of these, doctors can use methods like hormone therapy or other drugs to help destroy the cancer cells. But if you have triple negative breast cancer, it means none of the three are present and doctors have fewer treatment options.
After the doctor’s call, Alex decided to fly back immediately. My friends came the very next evening to be there with us. Breaking the news to my parents was the most challenging because they were in India. They took it in their stride and decided to unconditionally support me. Although I know they must have cried a lot. To date, my friends and family don’t cry much in front of me.
The next challenge was to share it with my girls, who were 8 and 11 back then. I had prepared them about breast cancer when I went in for my biopsy. They had done their share of research online. When my cancer was confirmed, my younger one said to me “Amma, don’t worry, they will give you medicines and radiation to cure you of cancer. You will lose your hair because of the medication and not because of the cancer; it is for you to get better.”
In the first line of treatment, I underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy without reconstruction (because of the aggressive nature of TNBC) and 33 rounds of radiation. I was cancer-free after this surgery. Radiation and immunotherapy are given as preventative care to avoid recurrence. Unfortunately, it did not work for me and within six months, the cancer had recurred and spread.
My bloated stomach made me look like I was five months pregnant. A GI issue was ruled out but the gynaecologic oncologist suspected ovarian or peritoneal cancer. The ultrasound and blood work were normal, so it was challenging to nail down the problem. Finally, we decided on a laparoscopic hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, a surgical procedure to remove all the female reproductive organs. We were taking a risk because if there was no cancer, the bets were big.
After the surgery, the lab results were positive for cancer cells in all the organs removed, and they found some in my stomach as well. A PET scan revealed the cancer had spread to my liver and spine too. I was now dealing with metastatic stage-4 breast cancer. With the recurrence, we started my second line of treatment. Six months in, I was admitted to the hospital for stomach pain, and the MRI revealed that my cancer cells were growing and had stopped responding to the second line of treatment.
I remember my oncologist telling my husband that he must start fulfilling my wishes. We both cried our hearts out. Then came sharing with friends and family. Unfortunately, I had to break the news of the recurrence and metastasis on my dad’s 80th birthday. We thought that was the hard part but sharing that I wasn’t responding to my second line of treatment was even more disheartening. My husband told our daughters and in the hospital, I could see the fear in their eyes, which they tried to cover but then their tears started flowing along with their questions.
We had dinner together after a long emotional family talk and then my husband and the kids returned home. I was restless and cried alone in the hospital room. With the pain meds, I fell off to sleep, only to be suddenly woken up at midnight by Alex’s shadow. He was sitting there and crying. Such is our love. With a promise to fight, I asked him to go home.
Now, I am on another chemotherapy medication – my third line of treatment. Our family and friends have extended their unconditional support, they fly down to Austin periodically to help us out. With the treatment, sometimes we are stuck at home, so having them around helps us disengage from the ongoing stress. My parents, at 80 and 77, are doing everything they can to be there for me. We went to Europe together this summer and my mom walked everywhere with me, averaging 8-10 miles (10-16 Km) daily. Her determination gives me a lot of strength.
I also created a WhatsApp support group with my closest friends and family members to share my feelings without being judged. Their role is to stay positive and uplift me on bad days. My friends join me for chemo treatments because the clinic allows visitors.
I know it’s not easy for them to sit in a room full of cancer patients. It’s challenging to keep their emotions in check as they see me go through infusions, knowing what I am enduring and yet be cheerful and engaging. I am so proud of their bravery, empathy, and willingness to bear it all for and with me.
I don’t want to be treated like a bechari, our one common ask is to walk into our house with a smile and walk out with a smile. While everyone is rooting for me, sometimes I find myself alone, handling the ups and downs of the illness and the treatment. But I constantly remind myself that I want to be there for my kids, husband, and family. And more importantly, I want to experience this life that I have been gifted. The satisfaction of making short-term goals and enjoying the accomplishments has kept me going.
Loneliness is one of the most painful and rarely addressed side effects of cancer. I want women to know how important it is to have your circle of trust, your ecosystem, and cheerleaders to help you overcome crazy situations. I am bold and able to transcend my problems because of my solid support group. When I get messages from friends telling me they are thinking of me, praying for me, fasting for me, and asking how I am doing, it lifts my spirits and makes my day. It comforts me that someone is thinking of me and will continue to do so for my family.
I discovered my will to live is substantial, and I often wake up feeling nothing is wrong with me. My husband has made me his priority, he keeps motivating me every day and continues to bring out the best in me. He simply amazes me by taking over so many responsibilities at home and keeping the kids engaged. They say caregivers go through a lot, which is so true when I look at everything he has had to deal with since my diagnosis. He is a keeper, and yes, I proposed to him several years ago. I just knew he was the right guy – my pillar, rock and lifeline.
I am incredibly thankful that my health, with everyday workouts and a nutritious diet, allows me to take chemotherapy and be there with my loved ones. I am continuing to battle metastatic-stage breast cancer. My life is almost directed by my 3-month scans. A stable status or decrease is considered a good report. I typically plan for 3 months, I don’t dwell much on what if. Living in the present and being functional keeps me going. It is as simple as: I am alive today, what I can do with my time and energy?
I am optimistic about being cancer-free but more importantly, I want to dedicate my time and energy to helping women navigate the cancer journey with the same zeal I am doing today. I want women to know that there is hope and that with self-determination, they can have a better quality of life, learn the importance of having a support group to lean on, remove the guilt and misinformation around breast cancer, and continue to inspire others to not be afraid during adversity.
Being an ardent SRK fan, I love the song and want to believe that one day – Joh bhi chahoon, woh main paoon, zindagi mein jeet jaaon, bas itna sa khwaab hai. My body has not given up yet, and my mental strength, which has a more prominent role, has been my solidity. The race is on; the finish line is variable with the short-term goal, but the objective is always to cross it.
Robin documents her journey in a blog to spread awareness about the diagnosis, treatment and recovery process, hoping to help others navigate their cancer journeys.
This is a first person account as told to Shivani Pathak