Just after he had won the biggest battle of his career, Yuvraj was faced with the deadliest enemy of his life – cancer. A lesser man would’ve gone into a shell of depression and self-pity. But Yuvraj kept fighting and eventually smacked the cancer out of his system.
To win a battle like that, strong will needs to be complemented by inspiration, and destiny had the source ready for Yuvraj. A few months ago, before being diagnosed with lung cancer, he started to read a book and left it incomplete. It was ‘It’s Not About the Bike’ by cycling champion Lance Armstrong. During his treatment, Yuvraj found a perfect reason to reopen the book that depicted Armstrong’s fight and eventual triumph over a fatal testicular cancer. In those pages, Yuvraj found belief; they held him together through tests and trials.
Now he is back from the United States after a successful chemotherapy treatment. He’s happy to “live like a normal person” once again. Yuvraj has begun the process of making what would be one of the most extraordinary comebacks in sporting history. In an exclusive interview with iplt20.com, he poured his heart out and spoke at length about the lessons of life he learnt from the ghastly experience.
The highest high of your career – winning the World Cup for India – was followed by the toughest phase of your life. How hard was it to cope with this sudden drastic change?
Yes, the World Cup was the highest high of my career. And from there to plunge into the lowest phase of life, it was very hard to digest. At first, I didn’t believe it was happening and I was not ready to accept it. It took a while for the feeling of winning the World Cup to sink in. And then to be diagnosed with cancer was very difficult to digest. It took me close to two months to get to terms with the fact and understand what actually was happening to me.
Is fighting cancer and coming strong out of it the biggest achievement of your life?
Hearing the word cancer sends shivers down the spine of any person. Fighting the disease, coming out of it and leading the life of a normal person once again was the toughest challenge of my life. As a sportsperson, when you’re not performing, you know you’ll always come back by working hard. But with cancer, you don’t know whether you’ll ever come back. And to be able to beat the disease is my greatest achievement in life.
What was the most difficult thing about that period – the physical strains of the treatment, life away from cricket, or the mental and emotional challenges?
All of it. I was definitely missing the game, but first of all, you’ve got to save your life. Chemo is a tough treatment to go through. You need a lot of mental support of your friends and family. I had a lot of support from my mother and my best friends. It was tough to do simple things like getting up after the treatment and go for a walk, and to digest my meals.
Did this phase come as realisation to value the simple joys of life that we often take for granted?
Yes, definitely. As sportsmen, you often take your health for granted. If you’re in pain, you just pop a tablet in or rub some ice on the wound, and you’re sorted. You keep living your life thinking nothing bad is going to happen to you. This illness came as a real eye-opener. Since I’ve come back, I’ve been so happy to just live a normal life. There’s no stress on the body right now, because there’s no cancer in it. I struggled to breathe a few months back, and now I breathe like a normal person. It gives me joy to just breathe in the fresh air, go out with my friends and enjoying a nice meal.
Have you come out a different person from this? Has your perspective towards life changed in any way?
Not much. I’ve always tried to improve as a person. But the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from this battle is that money and fame are important to a certain extent, but the bigger things in life are your friends, family and above all, your health. All these things have a special meaning in my life now.
How did you feel when Anil Kumble came to meet you?
It was quite a surprise. I didn’t know he was coming to see me; he suddenly landed there. His visit was really motivating and I felt very happy to see him. Before that, I had only seen him on the field and in the dressing room as a cricketer. It was nice to meet him as a person and chat to him. He came all the way to the USA to see me, and that was very special. It motivated me to be strong.
You drew inspiration from Lance Armstrong and also read his book. How was it receiving a message from the cycling legend himself?
That was the most inspiring message I received. He has always been my real life hero. He’s somebody who fought cancer – and his cancer was far worse than mine – and won the Tour de France seven times, which is a phenomenal achievement. Getting a message from him meant a lot to me.
Often, people tend to become reclusive and depressed when they’re going through something like this. But you kept in touch with the world, updating them of your progress via pictures and tweets. Was it something you did on purpose to keep negative thoughts away and get positive energy flowing?
It’s tough to be positive in that phase, because the drug really suppresses you and its effect is not too great. But the main reason for me to be positive and show everyone that I was being strong was to send a message back home that if you’re suffering from such a disease, you need to fight it out. If you have a strong mind and support from your family, you can definitely win the battle.
The awareness of cancer in India is not that great. A lot of people ignore the symptoms or hide the disease. After this experience, I can relate with all the cancer patients and can feel their pain. It is important for me to spread the message and give them the support.
Are you planning to actively get involved in this campaign by setting up an organisation or something to that effect?
I definitely want to do something for the Cancer Society. The cancer has left a big scar on me, and it’s something I’ll always remember. I really want to do something for the people who are going through this. The plans are there, but everything takes time. Lance Armstrong’s foundation, Livestrong took a couple of years to generate the kind of money it did. I too want to do something along the lines of that and provide that support to the people in India who are suffering from this disease.
What post-treatment routine have doctors asked you to follow and how long will it be before we can see you back on the cricket field donning the blue India jersey?
The doctors haven’t given me any medicine. They said the effect of chemo is completely out of my system. It’s been about five weeks now and I feel stronger day by day. I’ll start training in a week or two. I definitely want to get back on the field as soon as possible and wear my India cap again. I can’t really give a time right now, because I’ll have to see how my body responds to the training and the workouts.
Do you miss being part of the IPL?
The IPL has been a great success and one of the best tournaments that I have played in. The crowds come in large numbers and I miss being a part of it. But my team [Pune Warriors India] is doing really well and it’s great to watch them play. It is an exciting experience to watch the matches as a fan for the first time.
Your career flourished under Sourav Ganguly. What are your thoughts on him taking over the PWI captaincy from you?
He’s had a lot of experience as a captain for Team India and he’d be the best guy to lead the team at the moment. I just hope that they get into last four, and with his experience the team can really pull through.