Story Of A Brave Heart And A Cancer Survivor: An Interview With Debayan Sen

Zuvius: What were the circumstances that made you decide to go for a check-up?

Debayan: This was in 2011, when the Cricket World Cup was on in India. I had taken up a commentary assignment for the official broadcasters (ESPN STAR then) which required me to cover about 8-10 games in intermittent gaps of a few days for their live updates. This entailed commentary from just a little before the first ball of the game right through to close of play, alongside another commentator in the same language (English). I found a few days through this assignment that I had a sore-throat, which I would then try and subdue by having tea and coffee. At no stage did I consider the severity of the situation…in fact I did a self-examination one day and I found a whitish slough alongside my tonsils. I took myself the very next day to an ENT, who seemed a bit surprised by the appearance of the material only on side of my throat. He nevertheless recommended some anti-biotics and asked me to come for a follow-up in a week’s time. I went back to my commentary assignments and duly followed up a week later. That’s when the test he recommended made me realise what I probably had (I have done my graduation in Chemistry and hence have a fairly good understanding of medical terms and diagnostic lingo).

Zuvius: What was your immediate response on learning you had cancer?

Debayan: Funnily enough, I felt neither any panic nor anything bad. I knew I would beat it. The only thing I was concerned about was the cost – both immediate and the fact that this diagnosis had come less than a year that I had set up my own company. I knew I was an important cog in my company’s scheme of things, and though I would still be able to work out of wherever I was resting, it could impact our morale for the period of treatment. I was more worried about how my immediate family would take it – my wife, my parents, my brother and my extended family. I also spoke to a few close friends and colleagues – I found the fact that one friend broke down on hearing the news a bit amusing. I was giving him strength rather than the other way around!

Also read: Sean Swarner: Interview With The Survivor, Hero And One Of The Most Inspiring Human Beings.

Zuvius: How did you decide which hospital/doctor you should go to for further treatment?

Debayan: Just before my diagnosis, my grandmother – who passed away in 2012 – was also undergoing treatment for Stage IV breast cancer. She was being treated by a certain doctor with an Armed Forces background and it was him that I turned to for my treatment as well. In fact, he switched hospitals himself about midway through the first cycle of my chemotherapy…which made it a bit awkward for both my grandmother and myself to also shift allegiances shortly afterwards. Friends and family took several second opinions, but we stuck to the first doctor we went to – after all, for all practical purposes, a specialist must be trusted and put complete faith in.

Zuvius: Who was the first person you called to tell about your diagnosis?

Debayan: I think it may have been one of my business partners. My family was around when the report came by. I also called my wife immediately after my second meeting with the ENT, and I did tell her that even if this is cancer, we’ll sail through it. I must say she was a solid rock of support right through, which inspired everybody within the family.

Zuvius: When you were diagnosed with cancer who was most devastated by the news?

Debayan: Most of my loved ones cried, but my father didn’t. Yet, deep down he was the most shaken up by this news. He was already coping with the stress of seeing his mother undergoing some pretty hard treatment. My grandmother was an inspiration for me too. Her cancer had spread to her spine and she was wheelchair-bound, but she retained a jovial and positive disposition. In the end, it was a case of Parkinson’s and not the cancer that she succumbed to. Yet, she retained a wry sense of humour till the time that she could speak and to an extent even beyond that!

Zuvius: Can you tell us what kind of cancer you had and what was the procedure of treatment prescribed?

Debayan: I had a very peculiar kind of lymphoma – it was called Burkitt Lymphoma, and it affected my lymph node in the throat. The treatment involved a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In all, it took about five months of treatment from the actual diagnosis to the end of the last stage of radiotherapy. I am not counting here what I like to call the “false scare” the following year.

Zuvius: What were the physical changes seen in yourself, in your daily life and how did you cope with those.

Debayan: I grew fat, because my appetite had doubled. I would often wind up eating portions for two people. And because I was advised rest for the most time, I was putting up weight. I also lost my hair, but I didn’t mind that so much. Staying indoors and resting wasn’t all that bad…the only problem was that valuable work time was getting wasted. Yet, I utilised the time to develop business over mail and phone during this time. As I mentioned before, my wife helped keep me strong. We used to live in a rented house on the second floor in an apartment without lifts. My parents, whose house was nearby and in the ground level, often expressed anxiety over whether I’d be able to do the climb up and down daily during daycare at the hospital. But my wife encouraged me not to take the easy option. There were sometimes bouts of weakness and nausea, but we overcame those with as much positive energy as possible.

Zuvius: Who and what kept your spirit up, gave you the strength and confidence to go through this difficult phase of treatment without losing hope?

Debayan: It was my family – wife, parents, brother – but mostly it was my own mental strength. I focused on the positives at all times – I considered it a break from the stress and rigour of work. It must have made my family think of a kind of insanity, but I read books, I played the guitar when I could. I didn’t treat myself like a patient. I thought everyday was just a regular day, except that I wasn’t heading to a workplace or traveling outside of home for a while.

Zuvius: Did you make any new friends during your cancer treatment? Can you talk about anyone special?

Debayan: The very first day I went for a PET scan, I remember a kind elderly lady whose husband was being treated for lung cancer. I can’t remember her name now, but she gave me a lot of strength. Her husband was actually cured and just undergoing remission, but she gave me some useful tips and encouragements. Besides this I always made sure I made friends with all the doctors and attendants and nurses at the hospital – too many to name. I sometimes asked them questions about their own life and how they have reached where they have. I remember one nurse who I think had developed a bit of a crush on me…she once remarked that I have an “athletic” physique and from that day on, she’d always blush when measuring my vitals!

Zuvius: Can you remember when you felt totally helpless during your cancer days?

Debayan: I never felt helpless myself, but I saw the sadness in the eyes of those around me. I wished there was some way I could convince them that all would be well at the end of the treatment. I knew it then and I know it now, but I think it is natural for those that love you to fear the worst. I sometimes actually felt helpless when there were too many people visiting in my room. Maybe we were all just laughing and joking, but sometimes I felt like I wanted to sleep or rest and was too polite to tell anybody to leave me alone.

To know more: Survivor’s Tale: C For Cancer, C For Courage

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