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No chemo, she said

By Mitali Saran
November 17, 2017 11:45 IST
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'It takes massive courage and clarity to choose quality over time.'
'It's not that Annie never doubted her choice -- she wavered occasionally.'
'But she went with her instincts, and retained control of her life and scripted her own best possible death,' says Mitali Saran.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

In January this year, my friend Annie began a sentence with: "When you write the cancer column..."

"You won't mind if I do?" I asked.

"Of course not," she said. "Besides, I'll be dead and I won't care."


We were trying to digest a shocking diagnosis. She had a malignant lung tumour and more tumour in her lymph nodes.

It was inoperable. The doctor who broke the news to her ordered her to start chemotherapy immediately.

Annie said, "Let's get out of here." We took her home and poured stiff drinks.

No chemo, she said.

Over the next few days, bad news got worse.

She had virulent small cell lung cancer, the worse of two kinds.

At her stage, most people lived somewhere between six and eighteen months.

Chemotherapy would buy her a little more time, but the cancer was almost guaranteed to come back and kill her.

No chemo, she said.

She was allergic to invasive allopathic medicine run by big pharmaceuticals, and the way it wrested choice and control from the patient.

Her first call, after the diagnosis, was to a naturopathy centre in Bombay which handles health and disease by supporting the body's innate ability to repair and sustain itself with proper nourishment and natural treatments.

If naturopathy couldn't cure her cancer, it would at least provide better quality of life. Chemotherapy would have her in and out of hospital, nauseated and wiped out.

Annie refused to spend her remaining days like that. She chose quality over time.

No chemo, she said.

We met a great deal, singly or in groups around her table -- a place of good food and hearty drink, impregnated with a million laughs and confidences and plans -- and tried to wrap our heads around it all, favouring brutal gallows humour.

If she said, "Wait a minute", I'd say, "We don't know if you have a minute."

If I said "I'll tell you later", she'd say, "Sure, I have nothing but time."

The worst part was not knowing how long she had.

She was very widely and very deeply loved. Some of her thousands of friends were frustrated that she was denying herself -- and us -- more time, and some of us agreed with her choice, but we were all in pieces over the inevitability of her death.

She conceded that it was a real drag, but was indignant with anyone who implied that opting for naturopathy was the same as giving up.

"I'm not not fighting my cancer!" she would yell. "I'm just fighting it with different means. No chemo!"

Annie was an utterly original individual who had packed more friends, travel, love, creativity, intelligence, and good times into her life than most people can even dream of.

Even the death in her chest was a form of life gone mad. There's no good way to abridge a life like that, but she found one -- by not ceding her independence, control, choice, and dignity.

She travelled and saw people. We celebrated her 51st birthday out of town, juggling a new regimen of juices and salads.

We went up to the hills in March, a yearly ritual, and walked 8 km a day.

She saw friends and family in Bombay, in Pondicherry, in Bangalore, in Kerala, and in Kuwait.

Her father passed away in May, and she was a tower of strength for her mother and the rest of her family.

She travelled to Germany, France, and Switzerland over the summer, and met friends. She carried her own suitcases all the way.

It was her swan song trip. She returned tired, rail-thin, happy to have done it, and ready to focus on checking out, on her terms.

In the third week of September, I dropped in for a quick chat on my way home. I have an image burned into my brain of my friend -- crotchety, ironic, huge-hearted -- standing on her porch with her big smile, as we waved goodbye and mouthed 'See you'.

She was headed to Bombay. I saw her next about five weeks later, at her funeral.

It takes massive courage and clarity to choose quality over time. It's not that Annie never doubted her choice -- she wavered occasionally. But she went with her instincts, and retained control of her life and scripted her own best possible death.

She bore a crushing psychic burden with astonishing integrity, grace, and dignity for ten months. Her suffering was relatively brief, and she died with loved ones around her.

She lived like a titan, and will be missed and cherished by legions of people, but it's the way she faced death that humbles me.

So cheers forever, Annie. What a hoot it's been, and what a privilege.

If we believed in another side, I'd say see you on the other side; but you know what we always said -- we'll be dead and we won't care.

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Mitali Saran
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