A Few Minutes with Namrata
by Laura Shipp
Hollywood and Bollywood actress (and breast cancer survivor!) Namrata Singh Gujral takes a minute to talk about 1 a Minute, her new film promoting breast cancer awareness.
Because of her family’s history of breast cancer, Namrata Singh Gujral had her first mammogram at age 25. For the next seven years, those regular mammograms came back clean every time. After all, she was young – too young to get breast cancer, she thought – and healthy. But the actress who is known for her titular role in Americanizing Shelley says an inner voice prompted her to be vigilant anyway. It’s a good thing she listened.
In June 2008, at age 32, Namrata was diagnosed with breast cancer after discovering a lump in her breast. She promptly began treatment – surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy to eradicate any stray cancer cells. As she learned more about her disease, Namrata became furious over the toll cancer takes on the world. And she decided to do something about it. While going through her third chemotherapy treatment, she launched the film 1 a Minute, a docudrama aimed at raising funds for a cure, promoting awareness and prevention, and supporting survivors of women’s cancers.
Based on the statistic that, globally, a woman dies of breast cancer roughly every minute, the film, which Namrata wrote and directed, follows one woman’s journey through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Throughout, breast cancer survivors (including Olivia Newton-John, Jaclyn Smith, Melissa Etheridge, and Diahann Carroll) share their own personal stories of hope and survival.
"There were times when I just wanted to put the project on a shelf and not deal with it. I was not one of those brave women who didn’t show fear."
Here, Namrata shares her story with Coping®:
Can you tell me about how you were diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in June 2008. A few months before my diagnosis, I had found a palpable lump, but my doctor at the time told me not to worry about it since I was young and my mammograms were coming back fine. I insisted on a diagnostic mammogram, which didn’t reveal anything, either. But thanks to a very diligent radiologist, I was sent for an ultrasound. That changed my life! I was diagnosed at stage I.
What went through your mind when the doctor said you have cancer?
You know how sometimes when you are sleeping and you have a nightmare, a part of you knows it’s a nightmare, so you tell your brain to go back to sleep and when you wake up it will be gone? Well, the days after my diagnosis were a nightmare, except it wasn’t gone when I woke up.
What is the status of your cancer now? Are you in remission?
Yes, I have been NED for two years. That means “no evidence of disease.”
What inspired you to create 1 a Minute?
Every 69 seconds, somewhere in the world, a woman dies of breast cancer. That is unacceptable! This is 2010, we have gone to the moon, we are trying to relocate to Mars, yet we don’t have a cure for cancer? Millions are being affected by this disease. Why is this not a global emergency? I needed to raise awareness, I wanted to raise funds to help find cures, I wanted to promote prevention, but mostly I wanted to support survivors of cancer. The film is realistic but also finishes off with such hope, light, and inspiration. That is a gift for survivors of any cancer or trauma.
A survivor friend who watched the movie the other day said, “This film is like having a support group on call.” It was that need to share hope and inspiration with myself and with my newfound cancer club that inspired me to make this film.
You started filming 1 a Minute while you were undergoing chemotherapy. How did you cope with the treatment side effects while also working on such a demanding project?
I remember lying down between takes. I remember crying on set a lot because part of me still couldn’t believe what was going on. There were times when I just wanted to put the project on a shelf and not deal with it. I was not one of those brave women who didn’t show fear. I was scared, angry, shocked, and horrified. But I said to myself regularly, “How can you turn this into something positive?” So I resolved to do something about this menace called cancer. Something that would trump anything that cancer could ever do to a human. And that resolve kept me moving and going forward.
"The accomplishment is not mine to have; it’s the hundreds of folks who helped make this film, and more importantly, the millions whose journeys inspired me."
Were there ever times when you thought the movie would never be made? What kept you going during those times?
Yes. No one would fund the film. Making a film is expensive. I finally got my husband to agree on using our savings account (and whatever it took) to make the film. What kept me going? The understanding that this work needs to get done, so someone needs to do it. If it comes with a price tag, so be it.
What was the most difficult aspect of your cancer experience?
The fear and anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis. The thought of dying young and leaving behind my daughter, who was nine years old at the time. The thought of acute suffering if they were not able to treat and cure me. I am sure those thoughts go away eventually, but I still think them sometimes when I feel a lump or a bump or have some pain. Your mind takes you to crazy places. But I love the quote from 1 a Minute where one of the survivors says, “Fear is not living in the moment.” So I desperately try to live in the moment – but am not always successful.
Did you ever have times when you struggled with body image issues?
Yes, of course. When I was in my teens, I modeled for hair products; that’s how gorgeous my long, black hair always was. To have it go was heartbreaking. And being an actress means you are defined by your size and looks. So to see yourself sickly is challenging on a good day, and downright depressing on a bad one. But I would constantly remind myself that it is temporary. And it was.
You can regain your body image and confidence. It takes work, but it’s not impossible. I think looking at some of the survivors in this film will blow you away. Yes, you can be fabulous … even after cancer. But more importantly, a cancer diagnosis forces you to grow up and mature overnight. And with that comes the understanding that in the scheme of things, looks are not that important. The fact that you are alive, that’s important!
How did your diagnosis affect the people close to you?
I have a scene in the film with my daughter, and when women watch the film at a test screening, that is the scene they remember most. No matter who you are or where you are in the world, your loved ones are scared of losing you.
How did you explain cancer to your little girl?
I told her a little bit but would always try to put on a brave face and say that it was no biggie. Then she would hear me cry in my room (I didn’t know that or I would have kept my volume down some), and that really scared her. One day, she said to me “Mom, if you die can I please die with you?” That was tough.
What are the most important lessons you have learned since your diagnosis?
Sounds hokey, but enjoy every moment that you have. You just never know what tomorrow brings.
What is the message you would most like to send to people recently diagnosed with cancer?
I know your world has come to a stop. But I promise there is light at the end of the tunnel. It does get better. Often, the biggest fear someone newly diagnosed with cancer has is “Am I dying?” Yes, we are all dying. Every day, we inch closer to that finality. Cancer or no cancer. It’s true … you really could get hit by a bus. So why ruin today with thoughts of what tomorrow might bring? Like my oncologist said to me, “You are doing all these treatments so you can live, right? Then don’t forget to live.”
The movie hits theaters in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. How do you feel about that accomplishment?
Humbled and honored that God would pick me to do this work for him. I was agnostic before my diagnosis, but am very spiritual now. The accomplishment is not mine to have; it’s the hundreds of folks who helped make this film, and more importantly, the millions whose journeys inspired me.
What is in the future for you now?
I have two films in development, a comedy and a war drama. I plan to continue my work as a cancer advocate as well. We are looking to start a major initiative in Asia to de-stigmatize cancer; it is still a taboo in some parts of the world. And on behalf of the millions of survivors around the world, I will be making a live appeal to President Obama to make cancer a priority now. Not tomorrow. Not the day after. But today.
If you are in the theater on October 6 watching 1 a Minute, please be sure to stay for this live panel, which will be simulcast nationwide. Please come support us. We are in 527 theaters. It is one night only, so don’t miss it.
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1 a Minute hits theaters nationwide on October 6 for one night only. For more information and to find a list of participating theaters, visit www.1aMinute.com.