'It has been the toughest battle of my life' - Yuvraj
Yuvraj Singh is confident he will return to playing cricket for India but says he is neither in a hurry nor anxious to do so, and that cancer changed his approach to both life and the sport.
In his first media conference on returning to India after receiving treatment in the USA for a rare germ-cell cancer called mediastinal seminoma, Yuvraj said his chemotherapy cycles often left him "depressed" and in tears, but having cancer had taught him a lot. "Cancer may be the best thing to have happened to me and maybe I will realise this in the future," he said. "There were more bad days than good. I haven't played cricket for one year, and it has been the toughest battle of my life."
Yuvraj was speaking at his academy, the Yuvraj Singh Centre of Excellence, at a Pathways School outside Delhi, turning up bald following his hair loss due to chemotherapy. He was accompanied by his doctor, Nitesh Rohatgi, a senior medical oncologist. Yuvraj wore sunglasses indoors, not as a style statement, but to handle the extreme glare from camera lights. Over the course of what was nearly an hour-long conference, he spoke openly of his two months in the USA, when he avoided watching cricket on TV ("there was a little bit of frustration when I watched the team play") and found himself inspired by the practical approach of fellow chemotherapy patients. He discovered he now belonged to another larger group of people, a group he called "the cancer family".
When asked about his return to competitive cricket, Yuvraj said, "I don't know what I will come back and be able to do. Getting back on the field will be a big achievement for me. My body needs to recuperate, and to deal with all that pressure, and to play for India again will be a very big achievement for me. What happens after that, I don't know. As a sportsman you can only say, I'm going to work hard - one thing I always think about is that I want to put the cap with the India logo back on my head. I can't say what I will do when I come back, but I am sure I will come back to cricket."
He made it clear that he had no targets or ambitions related to cricket. "At the moment it is very important that I look after my health, eat the best diet, have the best surroundings. The focus will be on my health, and what the priorities are with regards to my health. Rather than being emotional and saying 'oh people want me back quickly'. I've gone through a very tough time, when I come back on the field I want it to be when I am absolutely fit, not to rush, even if it takes me an extra month. But I'm sure that I will return."
Yuvraj's treatment in the USA had involved working with Dr Lawrence Einhorn, the doctor who helped Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong recover from a form of cancer that had been considered terminal. A few years ago, Yuvraj had left Armstrong's book It's Not About The Bike half-finished. "Maybe I had to come back to it this way and finish the book," he said. "He also had a young mother who helped him through the illness, he also had close friends who helped him survive … To me, Lance is a real life hero; he is a great sportsman but his achievements in life are much greater."
The disease, Yuvraj said, had made him appreciate friends, family, health and happiness over fame, popularity, success or money. "My thoughts have changed … Ever since I have played for India, I would get up thinking, will I score runs today or won't I, will I field properly, will I take catches, what will X or Y say about me, what will the press say about me. For ten years, I got into the pressure getting up every day thinking that I wanted to prove them wrong. But now that is gone, it doesn't matter and I am content. I have my friends around; I have my family. Definitely, I want to play cricket but I am sure I will play it with less stress on my mind … Playing cricket after this, looks a lot easier."
The disease may have left his body, Yuvraj said, "but the scar has not gone," and he wanted to be involved in working with cancer patients. "I don't have any specific plans now, but in the coming time, I will definitely do something for people with cancer… now patients struggling with cancer are like a family to me. I can understand their pain and I feel more connected to anyone who is going through it."
Cancer "hit him very bad" and at the start Yuvraj had found it hard to believe he had it. "This illness, it was hard to believe that a person like me can go through this. First of all, I am an athlete, I run six hours a day and I am playing from morning to evening. How can I have any illness?"
Yuvraj's problems had begun with difficulties in breathing during India's successful run through the 2011 World Cup, during which he emerged as the player of the tournament. During the World Cup he found he could not breathe comfortably on his left side, had bouts of nausea and had coughed blood on a few occasions. Yuvraj said the delay in undergoing chemotherapy had risen due to the difficulty in diagnosing the cancer he was suffering from. Mediastinal seminoma is a rare tumour which forms less than 1% of cancers on the whole.
"For six months we had wondered is this cancer or is it not. It was tough to diagnose. Maybe I responded late by two months. It was hard to accept you have cancer. I was in denial most of the time, I was afraid. But once I knew what I need to do, what was the right thing to do about it, I went to the US straightaway for my treatment."
Yuvraj also had a message for others who have difficulty accepting their affliction. "Awareness is very important. I wanted to portray to everyone who had the same illness, that don't be afraid. I was also in denial, I was also afraid, if you have any issue, get it checked. I ignored the coughing which was not the right thing to do. The World Cup was coming, there was a lot of pressure on us to do well, so there were other issues … but get yourself checked. Fight it out, be strong. It's not easy, but if I can do it, they can do it."
In Indianapolis, Yuvraj said he had watched joggers go past his apartment window and wondered whether he would ever be able to run around again or return to his family and friends in India. He was home now, he said, "with a lot of happiness inside me, that I can now live like any normal man, that I am breathing normally, there is no stress."
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo