By Praveena Somasundaram
Tanvi Saran was going to be late for dance practice.
As she ran through the laundry room, she bumped into her mother, Nita Saran, who was walking through the garage door. Tanvi uttered a quick apology and closed the door behind her.
Later that night, Nita clutched her hand to her chest.
“I don’t know what you did, but you hurt me,” she said.
Nita’s breast still hurt days later. Concerned that the pain persisted, her husband, Dr. Kaushal Saran, examined her. He found a lump, and a biopsy confirmed it was malignant. Nita was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Tanvi and her parents were in their living room together when Nita’s friend and primary care physician, Dr. Shrilekha Parikh, told the family about the diagnosis.
“We were all just sitting there, and it was really like, ‘Oh my god, what just happened?’” Tanvi said.
Nita began to cry.
From her spot on the floor in front of the couch where her mom and Dr. Parikh sat, Tanvi reached for her mom’s hand. Kaushal sat on a couch opposite them, also trying to comfort his wife. To Tanvi, the lights in the living room seemed more dim than usual, as if they too heard the diagnosis.
Dr. Parikh then told them Nita’s tumor was caught early enough that she had a chance of survival. Treatment for breast cancer depends in part on the stage of the disease — ranging from stage 0 to stage 4. The lower the number, the less the cancer has spread and the higher the survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.
Tanvi’s rush to get to dance practice led to something crucial to her mother’s treatment — a stage 2 diagnosis. Fourteen-year-old Tanvi might have saved her mom’s life.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Tanvi said.
Instead, she went to her bedroom and called her best friend, Ella Moxley.
“Are you OK?” Ella asked.
“Yeah, I’m OK,” Tanvi said.
She wasn’t. She’d just heard her mom’s cries shatter the air in the living room. She’d just told her best friend news that she never thought she’d have to.
“That’s not a normal sentence that comes out of a teenager’s mouth,” Tanvi said. The tears she’d kept at bay around her family just moments before streamed down her face.
A PRIVATE REALITY
When Tanvi saw her mom at home after treatment began, she was almost always seated in the same corner of one of the living room couches. She was recovering from a double mastectomy.
Tanvi remembers thinking that her mom looked tired and frail. Her mom, whose loud laugh used to pierce the air, now sat quietly on the couch.
Once Nita’s treatment began, Tanvi didn’t see her much. Ella’s mom drove Tanvi to school in the mornings, and Kaushal picked the girls up in the afternoons. Nita’s friends created a meal schedule so the family wouldn’t have to cook during the week.
Tanvi went to school, dance practices and debate team meetings as if nothing in her life had changed. She kept her grades up and studied for the ACT, even though she was only in her first year of high school.
“I did the best I could to make my mom proud,” Tanvi said. “And the way that I did that was to keep pushing and pretending like it wasn’t happening.”
Nita didn’t mind that her daughter’s life was continuing on normally. She preferred it that way.
“I didn’t have to take care of Tanvi at all, in every sense of the words,” Nita said.
Tanvi said chemotherapy was even worse on her mom than the recovery from her double mastectomy. Tanvi visited Nita only once during chemo.
She walked into a clinic in Norman, Oklahoma and saw around 10 brown chairs lined up along a gray wall, most of them occupied by women receiving chemo.
Nita was reclined in one of the chairs with tubes connecting her arm to a machine next to her. Tanvi sat on a stool beside her, staring at her sullen eyes, dry brown skin and bald head resting against the chair.
After about half an hour, Tanvi left for dance practice. She never visited her mom during chemo appointments again — it was hard enough seeing her at home. She suspected that her mom didn’t want her to see too much of the process either.
“She was also trying to protect me,” Tanvi said.
Now a UNC-Chapel Hill junior studying biology, Tanvi is considered by many who know her to be the perfect pre-medical student. She works in a research lab, serves on the executive board of a health-related club and tutors other students as a supplemental instructor for biology classes.
But most of Tanvi’s friends at UNC-CH don’t know that her mom had breast cancer. They don’t know that she felt helpless as a high schooler, unsure of how to take care of a parent with cancer. They don’t know that what she couldn’t give in support to her mom is what she wants to give to her future patients.
She hasn’t even told her mom that.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Tanvi is the fundraising co-chair for Carolina Pediatric Attention Love and Support, a nonprofit that pairs UNC-CH undergraduates with pediatric cancer patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital to form supportive relationships.
Tanvi was paired with a “pal,” whose identity cannot be revealed due to privacy laws, in August. Back at her home in Oklahoma for the semester, she started having weekly Zoom calls with her pal. Tanvi said whenever she mentioned those calls, her mom always perked up, wanting to know how they went.
“I wasn’t able to do anything for my mom back then,” Tanvi said. “But now I’m old enough that I can have an impact on her in an indirect way by helping other people.”
“I think that motivates her, among other things, a lot to continue to work for CPALS,” Mary Virginia Glennon, the nonprofit’s other fundraising co-chair, said.
Though her pal is no longer consistently at the hospital, Tanvi meets with them twice a week this semester. Before their meetings, Tanvi thinks of everything Parikh and other friends did for her family at a time when she was too young to take on that responsibility.
“That’s why I want to go into medicine,” Tanvi said. “It’s just to be that support system for somebody.”
And she opens her laptop, ready to Zoom with her pal.
Edited by Brooke Spach