I was 20 when my grandfather was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. He never smoked a beedi or a cigarette in his life; alcohol never figured in his dictionary either. As is tradition in a lot of Indian households, my mother and her siblings decided not to tell my grandfather about his condition. I was in the 3rd year of my med school and it did not occur to me that my grandfather had the right to know what was wrong with his own body. Also, I was only a “baby doctor in the making”, and hence never felt like a “real doctor” to them perhaps. (My sister still tells me to visit a “real doctor” when I fall sick; in light humour of course)
He was given an oral chemotherapy drug after running a bunch of incomplete shoddy tests. He would religiously take it completely oblivious to everything else. His eyes had narrowed to slits and had lost the light I grew up seeing. Shiny ulcers glistened on his lips and gums. He grew leaner by the day. I could see the apprehension in my mother’s eyes with every passing day. One day, obviously my grandparents figured out, after seeing “oncology” boards everywhere in the hospital we took my grandfather to. He bluntly asked my uncle if he had cancer. What they had tried to protect for so long was now out in the open. Surely, they didn’t think he would not realise?
Nearly 5 years and an MBBS degree later, I know that there are types of lung cancers that are not associated with smoking. What I don’t still know is why his children refused to divulge his own condition to him. I believe that had my family been open about it right from the start, he would have probably understood why he was having unbearable physical pain. He would have been less scared of dying a slow death. Even when he passed away 6 months after being diagnosed, they never mentioned the cause of his death to our extended family members. When people have no qualms about revealing their Diabetes or Hypertension, why the ado about Cancer? My mother still wonders occasionally if he was misdiagnosed. I think they could never really come to terms with it because of the stigma associated with it. I imagine in most countries, superstitious beliefs decline sharply with education level. The correlation seems mild or non-existent in India.
As a knee jerk reaction, I joined the chemo unit in a good hospital post graduation. I really wanted to understand what it was like to have people with cancer all around you. I learnt the finer nuances about screening, diagnosing and treating cancers. Working there, I have seen people with cancer being ostracised by some of their family members. It is deplorable that such things happen in the modern world. In the 21st century, with rising incidence of cancers worldwide, it’s never been more important than now to build a support system and raise awareness about the different kinds of cancers, warning symptoms, prevention and screening. So I request everyone who has a story to come out and share it with the rest of the world so that people like you and I can be prepared. No, it’s not the dreaded sympathy that you’re going to get. It is support, love and the courage to fight knowing that you have a hundred other soldiers with you battling it out as well. My experiences have made me believe that cancer can take away all of a person’s physical abilities. But it can never touch his mind, heart or soul. The human spirit is more resilient than one can imagine.
“Cancer is messy and scary. You throw everything at it, but don’t forget to throw love at it. It turns out that might be the best weapon of all” – Regina Brett