21 Feb “I HAD TO TELL MY FAMILY I HAD CANCER OVER ZOOM”
Bansri Dhokia was devastated when she was diagnosed with cancer during lockdown. But worse still was that she had to break the news to her family in a Zoom call.
“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” said Bansri. “I was in complete shock. I couldn’t have visitors so I had to gather my family together and tell them over Zoom. It was just so difficult for everyone.
“My mum is like my best friend and I knew she was so worried about me and she couldn’t even see me to give me a hug.”
Bansri was forced to put her dream wedding on hold while she underwent tough chemotherapy. Treatment went well but last December she was told the cancer had returned.
She is now in treatment again but undeterred, she and her family and friends are fighting back.
They are stepping up for Cancer Research UK’s latest fundraising campaign, Walk All Over Cancer 2022. And they are asking others to join them by signing up now and getting sponsored to walk 10,000 steps every day in March to help support the charity’s life-saving mission.
Up until summer 2020, Bansri, 30, from Ealing, was working long hours as a business analyst in a job she loved. She had a healthy lifestyle, exercising four to five hours a week and regularly going on yoga retreats. She had had a civil wedding ceremony with her husband Amrit but was longing for the ‘big’ day – the celebratory Hindu ceremony and party.
However, in the weeks running up to her 29th birthday in July 2020, Bansri started to feel overwhelmed with fatigue.
“I knew something wasn’t right because usually I had so much energy, but suddenly I was out of breath even doing simple tasks. I also began to suffer from frequent migraines and my menstrual cycle was all over the place.”
Bansri booked appointments with her GP but was unable to see her face to face due to covid restrictions.
“I knew something wasn’t right but it was very difficult explaining the symptoms over the phone.”
Bansri underwent repeated blood tests but they all came back clear. She was about to give up until Amrit convinced her to take another test.
“He was growing increasingly worried about me, so I took a fifth blood test. I assumed it would come back clear like the others. But I received a call telling me the paramedics were on their way to collect me.
“They explained the tests showed worrying signs of abnormal blood cell counts. The next thing I knew I was on my way to hospital.”
Bansri was kept in hospital overnight where she underwent a blood transfusion and a bone marrow biopsy.
“Everything was completely overwhelming,” she said. “I just thought I was anaemic – I didn’t even know what a bone marrow biopsy was.
“This was at the height of the pandemic and visitors weren’t allowed but I was so traumatised the staff allowed Amrit to come and see me.”
When her biopsy results came back, Bansri was given the devastating news that she had leukaemia.
“It came as a complete shock,” she said. “Cancer hadn’t even entered my mind. I was the first person in my family to get cancer and I didn’t know anything about leukaemia.”
Bansri was told she would have to remain in hospital for two months for treatment.
“It suddenly dawned on me that I was really sick and wouldn’t be going home.”
Bansri began chemotherapy immediately as her cancer was so aggressive.
“I was told I would probably lose my hair. I burst into tears as my hair meant so much to me and I’d been growing it really long for the wedding. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t bear to see it fall out bit by it, so I asked Amrit to cut it all off.”
Bansri had three cycles of chemotherapy and was allowed home briefly for Christmas. She returned to hospital for further treatment in January 2021 and in February underwent a stem cell transplant.
“There were particular difficulties in finding stem cell donors from BAME backgrounds who tend to be underrepresented on donor registries. I was unable to find a match on the global register so I was very lucky my sibling was a match.”
Following her transplant Bansri was in remission for nine months but a further bone marrow biopsy in December revealed the cancer had returned. She is now undergoing further chemotherapy.
“That was a huge blow and I found it harder to take than the original diagnosis. But I am optimistic that this latest round of treatment will work.”
During her initial stay in hospital Bansri saw an advert for the Cancer Research UK Walk All Over Cancer challenge.
She said: “I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I told my Mum, Rama, about it and she and a group of friends, including Amrit’s mum, signed up, calling themselves Team Dolly – that became my nickname as I’m so small the nurses said I looked like a little doll.
“The team did 10,000 steps every day and Mum always came back feeling better. The challenge gave her something to focus on and lifted her spirits.”
Team Dolly raised £10,000 for Cancer Research UK and have signed up for the 2022 challenge.
Rama said: “Not being able to see Bansri was really difficult so we wanted to do something to help raise awareness for the need for more research.
“The challenge helped us get more active and we often met up to do our steps together. It helped get us through a tough time.“
If she’s well enough, Bansri will join them.
“The past couple of years have been the most challenging of my life and I’ve had to put everything on hold,” she said. “I take things a day at a time now, but I also look forward to being back to full health and fulfilling my dream wedding. It gives me something to look forward to, especially on the most difficult days.
“I believe everything in life happens for a reason so I’m trying to use this experience to focus on what it has taught me. It has given me many gifts – most of all love, gratitude and perspective – the small things become the biggest things when everything is stripped away.”
Bansri knows first-hand how important new breakthroughs are to help more people like her survive.
“I hope fellow Londoners will follow Team Dolly and Walk All Over Cancer next month. Everyone can go at their own pace and build the steps into their daily routine.
“Every step will help Cancer Research UK to keep making great strides in the fight against the disease.”
In London, around 37,600 people are diagnosed with cancer a year.* But, thanks to research more people than ever across the UK are surviving their cancer for 10 years or more.
This year marks 20 years since Cancer Research UK was formed and to celebrate it is paying tribute to supporters like Bansri and her family and friends for the part they have played in this progress.
The charity’s history, however, goes back much further to the founding of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in 1902 – meaning its work has been at the heart of some of the biggest developments in cancer, including some of the most used cancer drugs around the world today.
Lynn Daly, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for London, said: “Every day we see the benefits of research we’ve previously funded being realised, helping people live longer and healthier lives. So as we mark our 20th anniversary, we want to say a heartfelt thank you to Bansri, team Dolly and other Londoners for their commitment to the cause.
“1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime**, and so we will never stop striving to create better treatments for tomorrow. We need everyone to step up to Walk All Over Cancer. It’s a simple way to show support during these challenging times and a great way for homeworkers to increase their exercise.
“Plus, knowing you’ll be helping to save and improve lives for generations to come is the ultimate motivation. We’ve come so far. And we will go much further. Together we will beat cancer.”
Ten thousand steps is equal to about five miles, based on the average person’s strides. By the end of March participants will have clocked up more than 150 miles.
That’s quite a challenge for some but making small changes can really add up – walk while on a conference call, explore local beauty spots or treat the dog to extra long walkies.
Keeping track of steps each day is easy with smartphone apps, pedometers and activity trackers. Participants can connect their online giving page with FitBit to automatically publish their step count and share their progress.
Lynn added: “This past year proves, more than any other, the value of research. Just as science is our route out of the pandemic, it is our route to beating cancer.
“From proving the link between smoking and cancer to laying the foundations for modern radiotherapy – our scientists have been at the forefront of cancer research for 120 years. We hope Londoners will join us to keep pushing forward.”
Cancer Research UK spent over £150m in London alone last year on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research. The charity’s ambition is to see 3 in 4 people survive their cancer by 2034.
To sign up and receive a free fundraising pack and t-shirt, visit cruk.org/walkallover.