Cancer. It’s a scary word. It catches our attention and brings a world of different emotions, thoughts, and questions. Why do I have it? Why does someone I love have it? Where do we go from here? There’s no denying the impacts this illness has on person’s life, and not only theirs but also those around them. We spoke to Naveena (Nav) Nekkalapudi, Head of Planning and Performance at Medibank and Breast Cancer survivor, about the highs, the lows and the life-changing impact of cancer.
“I was diagnosed in December 2014 and have only just returned to work now. While I was in South America, I got this persistent cough and my lymph nodes had flared up. I’d also had a lump in my breast for a little while, which I told myself was a cyst. It wasn’t until my mum gave me a nudge to go to the doctor for my cough that I actually did.”
Upon getting checked, Nav’s doctor pointed out that the lump and the swollen lymph nodes were connected and sent her in for a mammogram. On Christmas Eve, she had a mammogram and ultrasound done. Half an hour later, Nav received a call from her GP who broke to her what no one ever wants to hear – it was cancer.
“It was a huge shock. I have no family history, I’m fit, healthy and felt great so all I had to say was ‘what?’ in confusion”
Two weeks after finding out, Nav’s GP had found a surgeon who would be able to operate on her the following Monday. This made the situation even more real and she knew that it was time to tell her parents.
“I told my brother first who’s a GP and he helped me tell my parents. Of course, they were devastated. To me, I think that was one of the hardest things because you can see their hearts breaking right in front of your eyes. It was awful.”
Naveena with her parents in India.
It was later revealed that her cancer was a Grade 3 and a triple negative, which meant it wasn’t going to respond to hormone therapy. Due to this, doctors agreed that Nav would be given 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation.
“The chemo went on for six months. In a way, cancer itself doesn’t make you feel ill, but the treatment does. It’s damaged my joints and now I have Chronic Pain Syndrome, which has required me to attend pain rehab.”
In addition to the chemo and radiation, doctors also removed all of Nav’s lymph nodes out of her right armpit, resulting in scar tissue from the surgical side of her breast all the way down to her wrist.
“I couldn’t lift my arm up above my head and I had to go to a special physio to break this. I can’t explain how painful this was. I couldn’t control my tears but it was something I had to fix straight away, otherwise, it could’ve become permanent.”
A well-known side effect of chemotherapy is that patients’ hair falls out. According to Nav, there are options out there that can help prevent this from happening and instead preserve it.
“I tried scalp cooling, which is a treatment to try and preserve cancer patients’ hair. The problem with this, though, was that trials had been done on Caucasian people but not so much on those with an Asian background, including Indians. It was absolutely horrendous for me, it was extremely painful and I was brought to tears. I couldn’t handle a second go and decided I’d rather lose my hair.”
Luckily for Nav, finding nice, comfortable, warm hats and beanies wasn’t too hard. Her friend Carolyn Hindhaugh, who has also gone through her own cancer journey, decided to set up an online business called Hat House, which offers a variety of hats with the purpose of helping other patients stay strong and true to themselves.
“I tried on many wigs but they just didn’t work for me. Carolyn sent me some of her hats in the mail to try on and I just fell in love with them!”
Naveena remained comfortable and confident, wearing one of her beanies from Hat House.
On top of this, another thing which Nav says played a large part in her recovery, and became her choice of therapy, was her dog, Laika.
“If you asked me if I would’ve gotten a dog, having already known I had cancer, I would’ve told you a big no. I got Laika two weeks before I was diagnosed and she ended up being the best thing in my life at the time. She helped take the focus away from what I was going through.”
Naveena with her main support, Laika.
Naveena is an avid traveller and says that she hasn’t let the pain stop her. She has travelled to London, France, India, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe, Africa, South America, and has recently added North America to her list.
Naveena has become a world traveller!
Medibank has also played a vital part in Nav’s cancer journey, from the logistics of coming back to work, to sending new opportunities her way.
“The employee benefits/income protection insurance has been a great help. HR kept in touch with me throughout my recovery and have been very patient and understanding of my requirements. I feel extremely privileged to be a part of this company.”
Now back at work, Nav will be helping out the Health Concierge team as they focus on Breast Cancer awareness. Nav will be speaking with people who have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer and answering any questions they have about the illness and all things that come with it.
Asked if there has been anything positive that she has taken out of her cancer journey, Nav doesn’t hesitate to give a strong yes.
“It forces you to pause and reset. I like to refer to it as a re-birth because your priorities change. It makes you think about what is really important to you and what you want your life to be. It’s almost a blessing in disguise.”
Naveena with her lovely friends by her side.
For those who have recently been diagnosed or who are currently going through their own journeys, those who are struggling to get back up, and those who have reached the end of their treatment and starting a new life, Nav has a strong message:
“Hang in there, don’t sweat the small stuff and really focus on your health and wellbeing. We’re always on this constant mouse wheel and sometimes we forget to stop to ask ourselves if we’re on the right one. Make the most of your life, because tomorrow really isn’t guaranteed. This is a chance to redesign your life, take advantage of it.”