We all plan our lives assuming we would live at least till the age of seventy or eighty. “In ten years I’d be doing this, and in twenty years after the kids have grown up I’ll be doing that”. At that time the thought doesn’t cross our minds that our lives maybe cut short any moment by some accident or illness. And cancer is the cause for many a life cut short. Recently, Jade Goody’s death has increased the awareness of cervical cancer. A few years ago it was breast cancer awareness that had started on a massive scale.
I lost my grandfather to cancer twenty years ago. He used to complain of irregular stomach cramps, a couple of routine tests didn’t yield any results, so the doctors gave him some antacids and let him go. But the stomach cramps continued, and one day while he was teaching me how to make paper planes (I was three years old then), he collapsed. By that time his gallbladder cancer had reached its terminal stage, and the doctors predicted no more than a month to live. My father worked in Guwahati then, while the entire extended family lived in Jorhat. My youngest uncle wrote a letter to my father telling him of my grandfather’s illness. Telephones weren’t too common back then. My father arrived by night bus, and that was the first time I saw him cry. He didn’t cry when my grandfather died a month later. Two of my younger uncles got married within two weeks of the diagnosis of the disease, because my grandfather wished to see them settle down into family life. I didn’t even realize he was gone forever. I remember I was so irritated I took my drawing book and crayons to sketch, away from all the hue and cry going on in the house! It started to sink in only when I sensed his continued absence that stretched beyond a month.
This year my elder sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s just 39 years old, and a mother of two wonderful girls. She called me up a couple of months back and told me she had felt a tiny painless lump on her breast. She was worried because on my mother’s side there’s a history of breast lumps. Even in our family, my mother, my younger sister and I had battled with fibroadenomas, but we got away with just a minor surgery. She repeatedly kept asking me, “Since it’s painless, it’s nothing serious, right?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s the “painless” lumps that were mostly malignant. I was hoping it was a benign lump, and asked her to get a mammogram and a FNAC (Fine needle aspiration cytology) done. The tests came out to be positive of malignant cells. The whole family went into a collective shock. This can’t be happening to her, she’s so young and fit. But my sister was so brave. Her husband and her entire family’s support and her own will power helped her tide over this crisis. She lost a breast, she went through a harrowing period of diagnostic tests to detect the spread of cancer to other parts of her body, and she lost all her hair in the post-operative chemo and radiotherapy that she’s undergoing now. I marvel at the courage with which she has fought the situation. I was shocked and crestfallen when I first heard about it, but she is the one living the ordeal, and each moment of her battle with cancer has been a lesson to me. About the unpredictability of life, about how insignificant and petty our everyday troubles seem compared to these battles with death, about the strength of human spirit, about hope, about tolerance, about perseverance, about the support a family offers, about love that endures such tough tests and grows only stronger by the end of it. She had relapsed again after three cycles of chemotherapy. But I pray that she doesn’t suffer much agony.
Then there’s this uncle, my khuri’s (the wife of my father’s younger brother) brother, who had been a constant presence in my life while I was growing up, even though our interaction has lessened in the past few years. He was the one who accompanied me and my father when I went to watch a movie (‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’) on the big screen for the first time, and he had got all the scolding from the audience when I got scared and started howling when the fight scenes were on. He was the one who brought me a square tin box as my first school bag! And I happily carried it through kindergarten. He fell ill a month back, lost his appetite and became reed thin. The doctors in his town ran a lot of tests but nothing was found wrong with him but still his condition worsened every day. I asked him to get transferred into my college hospital last week. The doctors here suspected a colorectal malignancy and the results are due on Saturday. When I talked to him and his wife today, they expectantly asked me if he was going to be alright. They had never ever even heard of the word “biopsy”. I said he would be alright. But with the “C” word again popping up, I am praying each second that what I assured them would be true. Whatever the test results maybe, I hope he gets over this hurdle in perfect health.
There had been an immense development in the field of oncology (study and treatment of tumors) in the past two decades, be it research for causative factors, treatment, surgeries, diagnostic techniques and screening procedure for cancer detection, study of the magnitude of the disease. The survival rate has gone up. But it still kills a millions of people every year across the globe. The lifestyles we lead today, toxic agents in the environment, addictions like smoking and alcohol, familial factors etc contribute to the millions of people affected each year. It has slowly stopped being the disease of the old age. A frightening number of children and young adults are being affected by it every year. And although there’s increased awareness among people nowadays about cancer and they go for tests at any suspicious symptoms, some cancers hardly show any symptoms till terminal stages and remain undetected. That’s the sad part of this disease. It can hit you anytime. But people have started fighting hard against it. Their families too. And the fight for survival leads to successes, miracles. A cancer survivor knows what’s it’s like to be alive. Their bravery astounds me every second. Few of these brave people’s chances of survival become bleak, but they fight on till the end. Every time I visit a terminal cancer ward, I can’t explain the gamut of emotions I go through on seeing these people’s calm courage at the face of death, trying to live as normal a life possible with tubes and pipes restricting their movements and confining them to beds, pain affecting most of their waking moments, living on with the knowledge that death is close by, carrying on normal conversations with friends and family. They’re living wonders of hope, bravery, and perseverance.