Doctors are probably trained to break the news slowly. Don’t be specific. Don’t draw hasty conclusions. Drop hints. Raise the concern levels. Let the news sink in. Slowly. Gradually. Incrementally.
“It’s a patch.”
“A well defined spot.”
“A small lump.”
“Further investigations will be required to check for malignant neoplasm.”
“Of course it could be benign. Be positive.”
“Possibilities are there. We want to eliminate them one by one”.
Gradually the vocabulary expands. New words drift into your lexicon. Anorexia. Cognitive dys-function. Neutropena. Hormonal disturbances. Peripheral neuropathy. And then finally you come close to the dreaded word…….carcinoma….. cancer.
“We will have to refer it to an oncologist.”
“Don’t panic, they will just put you through a histological examination of a tissue biopsy.”
When you reach there two days (one lakh seventy two thousand eight hundred seconds to be precise) after the sample had been taken they ask the attendant to bring the “case” papers and shuffle through the reports ever so slowly. When doctors consult each other in whispers with a look devoid of any emotion you actually can hear your own heart pounding and the world spinning out of control.
Panic grips you. Oh! My God, my mother is going to die. She has that dreaded disease. She has cancer. Welcome to the 13% club.
That’s when a thousand centipedes crawl on your spine. Your stomach knots up. Your throat turns dry. Your feet and palms go cold. There is a blur. The voice of the doctor seems to be coming from outer space. Very faintly you hear your own voice imploring for a second check. But deep down you know all these days they were not actually groping in the dark. Then comes the final act of clutching on to the proverbial straw by a sinking man. You blurt out, “What stage is it?”
Grow up. Stop believing in those fairy tales. It’s time for a reality check.
For about 21 days I drove my mom from Delhi Cantonment to Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute in Rohini. That was as close to hell as one can get to without dying. Before that, my elder brother and then my wife had, in turns, taken care of the operation and the subsequent recovery- a recovery that makes you good enough to go through the ordeal of radiotherapy.
For my wife it was like going through an action replay, a case of Oh! No….. Not again. A few years earlier she had lost her mother after five agonizing and painful years of senseless battle with cancer. Imagine the news of your mom’s cancer filtering out when you yourself are in the middle of a pregnancy. She finally succumbed to uterus cancer spreading towards the ovaries before jumping across to the liver and then finally hopping on to the intestines.
What do you do, or say, or think when your mother grapples with the truth of cancer? What do you say when she lies huddled up in the back seat as you negotiate the early morning Delhi traffic. What do you say when you look at emancipated figures drained of all energy waiting in the queue for a radiotherapy shot or worse getting ready for chemo?
Nothing works. Absolutely nothing. Neither optimism. Nor realism. Neither hope nor despair. All dissolve into a meaningless nothingness. And don’t try to cheer up things. Sense of humour just never works in such situations.
Those were the days of long silences…..of unexpressed feelings….. of unshed tears……of unspoken fears……. Days when you felt so depressed, so angry, so helpless and so irrational that you even lost faith in God.
A cancer hospital teaches you lessons that the Harvards and the Oxfords of this world can never teach you. Life itself would not have taught you but for a specific calamity. At the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute in June 2005, I went through a crash 21 day diploma course on life and death.
Cancer does not have any favorites. It afflicts people of all classes across all age groups. There were old men in their seventies. They were simply wishing that their ordeal comes to an end soon. It was not defeatism. Just acceptance. And with it came calmness and a serenity which only death can give.
There was a couple in their early thirties. The husband had throat cancer. They would always come and sit side-by-side holding on to each others hands. They hardly spoke. What was his beautiful wife clutching at? Her husband’s hands? Life? Death? Pain for sure….. God could you fast forward life a bit. Pleaseeee… I want to know what’s in store for them. Tell me God if there is a twist to the tale. Tell me everything gonna be Ok….. But God has his own ways.
There was a kid just about nine years old. Her mother told me that he had lymphocytic leukemia. With defiance in her eyes she added, “It’s not the acute types you know.” The hope in her eyes as she refused to use the word cancer is the strength which can only come from a mother’s irrational heart.
Then there were a handful of kids in their early teens too- just to dampen the situation further.
Like my mother they all waited in their queues armed with a ploythene pouches that had sheaves of paper with their death sentences written in ineligible handwriting, a few CT scans and a bottle of water. Their blank expressions refused to mirror their innermost thoughts, almost as if the wire that connected their hearts to their faces had been permanently cut off.
It was difficult to fathom what went on in their minds. Why me? Why my nine year old son? Why not them? Why not their children? Why not their mothers? Is it fair? Is there God? And just what the hell is medical science up too? What have they been doing all these F@#$%!* years. Can’t they find cure to one bloody disease?
I looked at my mother. Of late I had even avoided making eye contact. She had the uncanny ability of reading them, especially if they hid fear or sorrow. All my bravado, power of positive thinking and management gibberish would lie exposed in a millionth of a second. Almost as if she has read my mind she said, “We are so lucky. I am now 65 but look around. Look at those kids. Look at that young couple…..”
One day she reveals her true inner strength. To a question from another lady in the queue as to what she was suffering from, my mom said, “Kuch naheen. Maine zindagi mein galat kaam karna toe dooor kissee kay bare mein galat bhee naheen socha toe mujhe cancer kaise ho sakta hai? Actually my children panic easily and it is they who have got me into this mess. Zabardasti operation kavaya aur ab radiotherapy bhugat rahee hoon. I am doing this for the happiness of my children.”
I decide to go out for some fresh air. The name of my nine year old ‘favourite’ is being called out for his session. His mother is cajoling him to go but he is TV gazing. Virender Sehwag’s blistering shots are on display and the news channel is saying as to how in the forthcoming tournament he is the player to watch out.
My nine year old hero smiles. Medication had ensured that his teeth or what had remained of them have gone black and eroded. His bald head was probably evidence of him having gone through a course of chemotherapy. His skinny frame stood witness to the hammering that modern science had inflicted upon him at an early age.
But nothing had crushed his spirits or his optimism. His eyes were still bright and cheerful, evidence of the fact that he had still not given up. There was hope in them. Genuine hope. Genuine valour. Genuine guts. He was defying fate, he was defying destiny, he was defying God himself.
Cancer continues teaching lessons on life and death to many more. But whenever my heart sinks. Whenever I feel down. Whenever I feel that life is not being fair to me. I think of that black toothed, bald headed, skinny nine year old child. His smile had made a statement that billions of words can never.
Move over Mona Lisa, I have seen a smile better than yours.