Breast cancer affects one in eight women. ASPIRE caught up with one of those women, Aarti Sondhi Vij, to journey with her into this challenging time, and how a regular mother of two turned into an icon of survivorship. Written by Clarilda Sharon
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a famous proverbial phrase that encourages one to make the best of one’s negative situation. Some give into the situation and stumble. While a few rise above and emerge stronger than before. Aarti Sondhi, not just made lemonade, but served many a glassful to people all around the world. She bravely faced cancer head-on when it showed up not once, not twice, but four times! Her decision to opt for early detection and prompt treatment was just one of her determined steps on her remarkable journey.
October is a month earmarked to raise global awareness about breast cancer, promote screening, and encourage prevention with early detection. It encourages one to pay attention to one’s symptoms and seek medical attention without delay.
Life before Cancer
A very active child from her early days on, Aarti was a vibrant girl. She grew up in the heart of Punjab, in a loving family of four. As an Indian Airforce brat, she studied in different schools and traveled across the length and breadth of India, also living in a hostel in Himachal at one point. The experience of moving constantly taught her to acclimatize to change early in life and deal with whatever life threw at her with equanimity. “Life for the families of military personnel is different than that of the ones in civil. But I was lucky enough to have experienced both. I grew up learning values, and at the same time had lots of fun,” recalls Aarti. Being academically inclined, she graduated with an MBA in Marketing in 2000 and later that year, married the love of her life, Amit Vij. Five years after marriage, the couple decided to move to Dubai in 2005 to build a new life in the city of skyscrapers and dreams.
It was the year 2020, and her fitness journey with FITTR and INFS had just begun. A few weeks before completing her professional fitness certification (May 2021) to become a FITTR coach, and at the age of 42, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “The wife of my husband’s brother was diagnosed with breast cancer in New Zealand in July 2020. Though I had nothing to worry about, but it led me to become more conscious. One day, lying on my bed, I felt this lump in my breast. Since someone close to me had recently been diagnosed with cancer, I knew that this was not something to be ignored or taken lightly. Not knowing which hospital to visit or anything about which specialist to see as I’d hardly been to any hospitals in my life, I ended up visiting the one where my son was born and was redirected to a breast surgeon there. The doctor I met on that first appointment hand held me through everything and did not leave my side,” says Aarti gratefully. After her ultrasound and biopsy returned positive Aarti was told she had cancer. “I was shocked when got the news. As a matter of fact, I’d never been overweight and neither smoked nor drank. I had no habits that could potentially cause cancer,” she stated. However, despite the shock, she had good news to cling to. As per her doctor, her tissues were still healthy and it was likely she would be clear of the ailment in 6 months.
With early detection and diagnosis, the chance of beating breast cancer is greater than 90%, according to WeillCornell.org. Begin your mammogram at the age of 40, or sooner if you have a family history of the disease.
Breast cancer signs you must be aware of are:
- A new lump in your breast or underarm
- Bloody nipple discharge
- Changes in the skin or appearance of your breast, such as redness, or inflammation.
If you notice any of these signs develop, seek medical attention promptly. “These signs can have benign harmless causes, but they need to be checked out,” Dr. Newman says. “Early detection is the most effective way of surviving breast cancer.”
The pandemic posed a hurdle for her parents in coming to the UAE, from India to be with her during this difficult time. Travel was closed as Covid-19 was at its peak. “The pandemic was in its initial stages, and doctors had no clue how Covid-19 would react to cancer. Because of this, my family and I were asked to quarantine – which was my biggest challenge.” Aarti drew strength from her meditative practices and found hope and courage to press forward through prayer. “I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since 2003, and my husband since 1993. I chanted for five hours a day initially. Now it’s for about two hours a day and and my husband joins me.”
Her husband Amit is her major source of support. “Aarti has fought this battle like a sun dispelling clouds of fear and anxiety within the family and among our circle of friends. Through her struggle she has shown that the human spirit is invincible and indestructible and happiness is not merely a concept” he says, his pride in his wife evident in his voice as well as his words.
Trial by fire
Aarti underwent multiple tests to see the extent of the disease. While she was at her PET scan to rule out the possibility of cancer spreading to other parts of her body, the doctors detected cancer in her liver. It had moved from Stage Two to Stage Four as the cancer had metastasized. This meant that the cancer cells had spread to a different part of the body from where they had first mutated. The discovery meant a change in the initial treatment plan for Aarti. Now it was more about saving the rest of her organs to control the spread and reduce the tumor. “The first surgery was in September to remove my ovaries as it was hormone-related. In June, I had liver ablation – a treatment that destroys liver tumors without removing them.”
Before her mastectomy – the surgical removal of all breast tissue from a breast, she underwent a PET scan where it was detected that a new tumor had formed in the bone, as she was given the clear for malignancies in the breast and liver. It didn’t end there. In January 2022, during another PET scan, the doctors detected yet another tumor in her right axillary lymph node, which hadn’t been there earlier. It was also discovered that the profile of the tumor had changed and she was scheduled for chemotherapy.
“Aarti is the kind of patient who inspires her doctors. Her journey has been far from typical, at each step there were difficult decisions to be made, and yet, at every one of those stages, she was willing to go the extra mile and fight for hard-won victories. The Aarti we see today is truly an icon of human fortitude, surviving and conquering her trial by fire” says breast surgeon Dr. Maharra Hussain, Mediclinic Welcare Hospital, Dubai.
Though extremely stressed as the tumor kept surfacing in different areas of her body, Aarti chose to remain positive. Chemotherapy is one of the most dreaded aspects of cancer treatment, but she approached it with fortitude in order to encourage others and lead by example. She started recording her journey and took to social media to share her experiences and told the world about her battle with cancer and her five surgeries in two years.
It was not Aarti’s goal to be merely free of cancer… she wanted her journey to help others who were struggling and made it her mission to spread awareness and hope that cancer was a beatable foe. Though she herself went through personal battles emotions emotionally, physically, and mentally she did not fail, not even once, to send out a continued message of courage and cheer. Even today she can be seen celebrating life and inspiring many others via her social channels.
Aarti noticed that many patients were unwilling to photograph themselves as they lost their hair during chemotherapy, and was determined to change the way people viewed this hair loss. Her purpose was clear. “I want to dispel the stigma associated with cancer and fight the life-threatening disease with a positive spirit.”
Of course, Aarti started losing her hair as a result of chemotherapy. But before she lost it all, she handed the scissors to her family and made them cut them for her. “I didn’t want my kids to see me without hair and feel troubled by it. So, I drove them to be part of it.”
Aarti went on to participate in the Mrs. Universe Middle East beauty pageant held in Dubai, while she was still going through chemotherapy and saw it as an opportunity to show the world that one can be bald and still be beautiful. While everyone represented their country, she represented cancer warriors everywhere. Not only did she participate, she also won the crown as the first runner-up. Walking the ramp, sans wig of any sort, she sent out a powerful message: beauty comes with no definition and it begins from inside.
Aarti was and is no ordinary woman. She did not wait until her chemotherapy ended or for the cancer to go away before she started living… to start volunteering and motivating others. Majlis Al Amal – Al Jalila Foundation in Dubai is where she would spend time interacting with other cancer survivors – listening to their stories and sharing hers with them. Luck favored when it came to medical finances as her treatment was covered by the insurance, but she wouldn’t be satisfied with that. She hit the roads on a cycling drive with her son to collect funds for the foundation, which then would directly go to the cancer patients who can’t afford treatment.
To live a life, means to live well
“For me, the mental strength was through prayers. As for my physical strength, I trusted my doctors from day one, though I did take a second opinion on my treatments with another doctor. I had many people recommend many alternatives, but I never gave heed.” Rather than giving up, Aarti went on to complete her fitness course and become a certified fitness and nutrition consultant so that she could help other cancer survivors. Her fitness lifestyle had a positive outcome. Because she was strong physically and mentally, she had fewer side effects from the chemotherapy, and firmly believes that, “It’s all in the mind. It is not easy, but go through it with strength, give your best, and be positive.”
Aarti believes everything in life happens for a reason. For her, it was cancer. Though stressed mentally and physically, she was determined to push herself beyond her limits. “Cancer has given me the opportunity to show the world that cancer does not equal depression and hating oneself, or life. Our body manifests what our mind believes. Hence, it’s very important to keep our mind healthy equally to our body.” She also advises other cancer survivors to not be hesitant in asking for help. “Learn to approach for help. Be it small or big” she adds.
Through Aarti’s journey, one can learn that cancer is only a chapter and not the whole story. And the journey is not about the end result, but rather about dwelling positive throughout the journey. It also draws attention to awareness and calls for early detection to win the battle in the fight for survival. It’s all about learning to make lemonade when life serves you some lemons.
The UAE has claimed its spot as one of the world’s leading healthcare hubs with its debut in the World’s Best Hospitals 2022 Index. Its rapid infrastructure, growing focus on preventive care, strong regulatory framework to protect patients, and focus on quality healthcare across public and private medical institutions have helped UAE emerge as one of the top nations with the world’s advanced healthcare ecosystems. UAE is also the first country in the world to have more than 200 accredited health facilities, according to Joint Commission International (JCI). The facilities provide top-of-the-line screening, diagnostic tests, and the highest standards of cancer care with the most advanced treatments.