The CSEC examinations could be considered the biggest challenge for many teenagers. Cherish Ragoonanan considered it as such until she was faced with an even greater challenge. In 2011, at the age of 16, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s disease Lymphoma while preparing to sit the CSEC exams. It was a moment that she will never forget and one that changed her life, and the way she viewed life, forever.
Hodgkin disease is a type of lymphoma (a cancer of a part of the immune system called the lymph system).
Now at the age of 22, Ragoonanan, who placed third in the National Council for Indian Culture’s (NCIC) Youth Champ competition in 2017, recounts her encounter with cancer. “I was a student at Parvati Girls’ Hindu College preparing for CSEC” she recalled, “and when I was diagnosed, coping with the fact that I had to leave all my friends and my normal life behind was quite difficult for me. As a result, I did not live the life of a normal teenager.” Instead of being tested academically Ragoonanan was tested physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
“Emotionally, I was wrecked” she stated sadly. “I was in a state of self consciousness always thinking about what life would be like with cancer; so curious yet scared to find out what was going to happen next.”
A lot changed for Ragoonanan, even her friends.
“I lost a lot of friends because many changes took place in a short space of time and not everyone truly understood what was happening to me” she said. “There was a lot on my mind…a lot on my plate to deal with. It truly taught me who was really there for me at the time. It was hard to cope with everything and I felt really distant from everyone because I felt like I wasn’t normal enough to be around them. A lot of my dreams got lost along the way and it was hard for me to connect with them on that level.”
The months that followed found Ragoonanan in the hospital being tested repeatedly and undergoing chemotherapy. She clearly remembers her first day of Chemotherapy. There were so many emotions that she could not understand and she constantly questioned why she had to be sick and why it was so important to have strength and faith so she could get through it.
“At that moment I knew something life changing was about to happen and I wasn’t sure where it would go from there,” she said.
She was unable to take her exams and spent most of her time learning to cope with what was considered to be her “new normal”. How did she cope with such a devastating illness?
“Fighting cancer isn’t something that you ever think you would have to go through in your life, so when it happens, it’s hard to grasp everything. My biggest challenge was within my mind. I felt like to a certain extent I had to become mature. It was the only way for me to be strong for myself and my family.”
One may ask, what kept her going during the moments when she wasn’t strong? What kept her alive and fighting at moments when she crumbled? The teary-eyed 22-year-old who has been deemed as a ‘True fighter’ by those who know her said, “My biggest inspiration was my mom and how strong she was for all of us.”
During her treatment many changes were taking place in her body.
“I lost all my hair. I felt so self conscious about it all. I lost a lot of weight, I was sick all the time and my body was so weak. I went through one of the toughest sets of treatment for chemotherapy. At many times I wanted to just give up because I felt so helpless, but with the support I had from my family I knew I had a bigger reason to keep going,” she smiled through her tears.
Can you imagine what it would be like to have all your hair fall off at the age of 16? That must have impacted negatively on the girl’s self esteem.
She disclosed that it did: “I was always hooked on fashion and the latest trends so it was hard for me to adapt to this new look – a young girl with no hair. My entire appearance changed. I felt like everywhere I went eyes were always on me and it made me very uncomfortable. It took me a while before I could have embraced who I was at that time and before I understood that I had to be okay with that. It’s like I found new ways to accept myself.”
In June of 2013, Ragoonanan went into remission. It was a day that for which she longed and one she will never forget. She has taken a vow to live life to the fullest. Today, she devotes her time to achieving her dreams.
Asked if she could do one thing all over again what would that be, the young woman said, “I would go back to school and enjoy my school years with my friends. Be just as normal as they are and live that teenage dream.”
She is making good of that dream since she is focused on continuing her education and becoming certified in Cosmetology at the Cosmetology and Finishing School. She even took her hobby of singing to a whole new level when she decided to compete in the NCIC’s Youth Champ. Now that she has been inspired, she seeks to inspire others and as a result, the cancer survivor now visits schools and speak to them about her challenges and why it is important to stay motivated.
So how did her views change? To this question she responded, “Now, when I think of so many people fighting cancer, some not even surviving, I get sad. I try to help as many people who are fighting cancer understand what they are going through and show them that they do have something to live for.”
As for the greatest lesson that cancer taught her – “It taught me that no matter how hard of a battle it is, there’s always a way to get through it. The road may not always be easy but that is just the way it is. I learned that giving up is never an option and that you have to take control of your happiness.”
There is no doubt that Ragoonanan’s biggest fear is the return of the cancer.
“I sometimes wonder if I could be as strong as I was then when it happened for the first time. At that time, I was so young and had very little of life to think about but now I’ve started living and seeing the world and how beautiful life can be and I’m scared that I could lose it all. You can say I became a little attached to this material world and the people in it,” she smiled.
Despite her fear of the cancer’s return, Ragoonanan lives by the motto ‘Live fearlessly and let God’.
“Live this life that you’ve been blessed with and let God make way for you” she said, “Do not fear the things that are beyond you and have faith that things will get better.”
To fellow cancer patients she encouraged, “Never give up. Find that happiness within yourself, that reason to smile and fight!
Ragoonanan wished to thank her family for supporting her, her dedicated doctors and nurses who stood side by her side during and after her battle, the few old friends that stayed with her when all the others left and all the new friends she has made along the way who truly helped her realise the true beauty of life.