In the history of sports, there aren’t many athletes who have made a comeback to the top after surviving cancer. Cricketers Simon O’Donnell and Dave Callaghan, cyclist Lance Armstrong (albeit controversially), ice hockey player Mario Lemieux, basketball player Edna Campbell, baseball player Mike Lowell, and footballer Eric Abidal are some of the players who fought their way back.
As far as Indian sportspersons are concerned, that one athlete who defeated cancer and returned to represent the national team is, of course, Yuvraj Singh.
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The 2007 World T20 triumph and the six sixes in an over are all unforgettable feats, but it’s safe to say that Singh’s biggest achievement as a professional cricketer is his player of the tournament award in the 2011 ODI World Cup. He starred with both bat and ball right through that tournament and was a massive reason why India were able to lay their hands on the coveted trophy once again.
However, even as the country basked in the glory of winning the ODI World Cup for the second time, Singh’s real battle had only just begun.
In November 2011, about seven months after India’s World Cup triumph, it was reported that Singh was suffering from a tumour in his lung. Three months later, it was confirmed that the tumour was cancerous and that he had mediastinal seminoma – a germ-cell tumour located between his lungs.
The news came as a huge shock. It was hard to believe that Singh has been suffering to such as extent right through the World Cup. The all-rounder would later go on to reveal that his ordeal began even before the ICC event. He said he was vomiting blood during India’s tour of South Africa in January 2011. The pain and fatigue worsened by the time the World Cup came around and he was worried for his life.
Despite the trauma, though, Singh never gave up. In early 2012, he underwent treatment in the United States and finished the three cycles of chemotherapy. He even set the right example by not shying away from sharing his experience with the public, often sharing pictures of himself during the recovery period.
Singh returned to India after completing his treatment in April 2012. And by August that year, he had made it back to the Indian team for the World T20.
In an interview with Hindustan Times in 2013, Singh spoke about how the battle with cancer brought perspective in his life. “I am a more relaxed person now. When one is young, aspiring to play for the country, doing well, any hindrance, like injury or being out of form, can be frustrating and a cause of annoyance or even anger. But once you have a close encounter with death, you realise the real value of life,” he said.
“Simple things like breathing, enjoying food, the small pleasures of life that we take for granted, become precious. The bodily suffering, when I was choking while trying to breathe, when I couldn’t digest anything each time I had chemo, when I would be a mental and physical wreck, made me realise that living a normal life is a blessing and should not be frittered away by fretting over things which are beyond your control.”
He may have made it to the Indian team fairly soon after getting treated for cancer, but Singh could never quite go back to being the player he was earlier. Lack of form and fitness would drive him out of the team but he managed to make comebacks to international cricket in 2013 and 2016, before finally playing his last match in India’s jersey in June 2017.
The thing worth noting in all of this, though, is Singh’s will to put up a fight. Be it the battle with cancer or the indifferent form with the bat later on, he never gave up. In 2017, he launched the YouWeCan Foundation to help spread awareness about cancer and help those in need.