Ambika Pillai opens up about her life and fight with breast cancer

Image Credit: Special Arrangement/Manorama Online

When celebrity hair and make-up artiste Ambika Pillai entered the doctor’s room, she was enveloped by a cold, blinding fear. After scanning the reports, the doctor informed me that she had breast cancer. Her world suddenly turned upside down. It wasn’t really the fear of death that shook Ambika but the fact that her daughter might be alone in this world. Excerpts from an interview.

A life that changed with Covid
I have been living a peaceful existence for the last few years. Before Covid, I had started selling Ambika Pillai beauty products online. Recently we started selling it directly at Lulu Mall branches in Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram. Just when things were running smoothly came Covid and other complications. Beauty parlours were shut down during Covid. But people were reluctant to visit parlours even after they were open, and I had to shut down my parlours at Delhi and Kochi.

When the income stopped coming from the parlours, we were in a fix. Only a parlour in Thiruvanthapuram is now open which is being run by my cousin and partner Govind.  When the other two parlours were shut down, I took the biggest decision in my life—to retire. I got married at the age of 17 and became a mother at 22 and got divorced at 24 years. I could have lived in my house forever. I am the daughter of Gopinathan Pillai who is a businessman and Shanta Pillai. But I wanted to be independent and therefore I went to Delhi to work as a beautician with my 2-year-old daughter.

Unfamiliar place, people and language. On the first day, they threw me out saying I didn’t know how to cut hair. My initial days were a struggle. But I wasn’t disheartened. The thought of taking care of my daughter strengthened my resolve to work harder.

When I gained a reputation as a hairstylist and makeup artist, life started to look up. I worked hard to overcome hurdles in my life. I felt it was time for me to take rest and that’s why I am shutting the parlours and retiring from a profession I love with all my heart.  But then little did I know that life had kept more challenges and difficulties in front of me.

When cancer knocked at her door
Life isn’t about acquiring fast cars or homes or accumulating wealth. I think health is the biggest wealth. I was always scared of getting cancer. And I used to do everything possible to prevent it. I used to regularly do breast checkups. After 40 years I used to do pap smear tests (to detect cervical cancer) yearly and mammograms once in two years. I even did a full body checkup.

I didn’t venture out much post-Covid and occasionally used to visit my mother in Kollam. My regular health checkups were not happening. One day I felt dizzy while getting up. Since this has never happened before, I called my regular physician. The doctor observed that it was due to the variation in BP levels. But at home when I checked my BP Monitor there was no change in my BP levels. My dizziness didn’t stop even after taking the medicines prescribed by the doctor. That’s when I decided to go for a full health checkup. The ENT doctor said my dizziness was due to Vertigo. But the headache vanished after I did a few exercises suggested by the doctor. Then I forgot about the tests.

When the doctor called me to discuss the test results, he told me—“Ambika, in the mammogram I saw a lump. It looks very suspicious.” I was very anxious. “Do I need to make a doctor’s appointment”? “I will arrange an appointment with an oncologist. The days that followed were tense. The Oncologist suggested a biopsy. After two days it was confirmed that I had cancer. And the only face that came to my mind was that of my daughter, Kavitha. Who will be there for my daughter if anything happens to me? Ours is a huge family consisting of a mother, three sisters and cousins and they will be there for us. But I was tense thinking of my only child. And her parents are divorced.

Back with a bang
When the doctor saw my crestfallen face he consoled me—“Ambika, you are lucky. We were able to detect it at a very early stage. So we have nothing to worry about." If not for that dizziness we would only be detecting cancer after four or 5 years and by then it would have spread to other areas of the body. Then things would have got out of hand. Since we detected cancer at an early stage, Chemotherapy wasn’t needed. After surgery, we did radiation therapy. I would require hormone therapy for 10 years. I need to do checkups once in every three months for the first two years and once in 6 months for the remaining three years. If I am able to manage without any complications for the next five years, then I have managed to overcome cancer.  

I am fighting with all my might to conquer Cancer. I am confident that I will be back with a bang after overcoming this disease. Surgery, medicines and radiation, I have gone through intense pain, and I don’t know how I would have managed without my daughter’s support. She was the one who took care of my exercise schedule and diet. The support and love of my family was also a big plus. So many people wished me through video calls from all over the world and that was overwhelming.

Insurance and diagnosis were lifesavers
When I asked my doctor why I couldn’t detect anything amiss during self-diagnosis, he said it was because the tumour was close to the bones. So it is essential that women who do self-diagnosis after 40 should try mammogram tests. If you are able to detect cancer during the earlier stages, it will be easier to overcome it. And surgery, medicines and radiations are expensive. You also need to do checkups weekly.

I know people who have taken loans for treatment. Since I had medical insurance, I didn’t have to worry about treatment money. A fabulous book called ‘Anti-cancer: A new wave of life’ gifted by my co-judge at Mazhavil Manorama’s Midukki reality show is my bible. In that book, they had suggested opting for local food and avoiding pasta, white bread and pizzas. I switched to a healthy lifestyle. To ward off the side effects of medicines, started exercising to avoid weight gain. Now I walk daily. I also brought a cycle and made a lot of lifestyle changes that keep my health in check.  

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