It was four months into the new millennium and everyone had come to the realization that they were still chained to the problems of 1999. My sister and I, on the other hand, were elated that we were finally old enough in the eyes of our parents to watch the movie South Park in all its cussing glory.
Even though I was nursing a horrid ear infection, I was determined to brave the Dolby surround sound and find out what Kenny really looked like under the hoodie while bopping my head to a catchy song sung by “Canadians” about a flatulent Uncle. Needless to say, my ear infection got worse. I got into my dad’s car thinking that I’d go home and sleep it off. Instead, he said we had to see attai (aunt).
I knew that my aunt was suffering from cancer for decades. Whenever we saw her she always looked like she had it together. She was a woman who had kept a family divided by religion together. While holding my ear and hoping that it would heal internally somehow, I was unaware of the air of morbidity that was fast approaching.
Once I entered the house, I knew I had to brace myself for the traditional sloppy kisses from my grandmother, followed by hugs and kisses from my aunt. I stood at the entrance of the door to my aunt’s room. My dad stood in front of me and spoke to my aunt while my grandmother lay next to her on the bed.
My dad moved aside. Suddenly I had a weak feeling in my knees coupled with a pain in my ear and an electric shock that coursed through my body. The person lying in the bed did not appear to be my aunt. Her skin was pale and stuck to her frail bones. The smile I normally wore withered away as I kissed her semi-warm cheek. This was the first time in my life that I had come face to face with the devastating final stages of cancer. The sickle of death hung over my aunt and I didn’t know how to process this harsh reality.
My aunt looked at me and mumbled something. I was afraid to ask her to repeat it but then she asked me again, “Where is it paining?”
“My ear,” I replied. I wondered how on earth she worried about me while trying to keep her essence alive in a body that was failing her. My aunt flitted in and out consciousness as my grandmother pulled the sheet up to her shoulder. I left the room, touched by my grandmother’s endearment.
My aunt died the following morning.
At this point, cancer wasn’t just a word anymore. It symbolized death. It was that ominous shadow that lurked in our family’s genes. But this was an old person’s disease – it wasn’t something I had to worry about in the near future. Or so I thought.
Fast forward fifteen years. I wasn’t quite as enthralled as I used to be about South Park. Life had a few unexpected but manageable emotional twists that I could deal with while venting over social media.
I submitted my thesis and reveled in the joy of sitting in front of my computer doing nothing but aimlessly surfing the internet. That was until “it” began. It wasn’t a sharp pain, just a feeling of discomfort. My temperature had risen but it didn’t feel like the flu had come over me. My energy dipped. It felt like my body was telling me that something foreign was in it but I assumed it was something I ate.
My right side hurt a bit the following morning and my family doctor ruled out appendicitis. He gave me some medication to take and after a few days, I felt right as rain.
But then I started experiencing the onset of fatigue in everything I did. I tried playing soccer and after running around for five minutes, I felt like dropping to my knees and dying. At that this stage, I just assumed that my past academic pursuits made me unfit and unhealthy.
A month later my doctor insisted I take a blood test. It revealed that my hemoglobin was way too low for a man. He sent me to a hospital nearby after the iron tablets he prescribed didn’t help increase my hemoglobin count.
By this time, I had already started my medical Google searches and brushed off the seriousness of what it revealed. Google wasn’t a medical doctor, right?
The thought of being poked and prodded didn’t faze me. I kept joking with my family, telling them that undigested Pringles are the problem and that the doctors will find that during my colonoscopy.
As the anesthesia wore off, I peeked at my files and saw my bloody insides and a word that read, “tumor.”
So Google was right!
I then had a portion of my intestine removed and spent a few days in the ICU. The biopsy came back and surprise surprise, the tumor was cancerous. The good news was that it was completely removed. I found this strange because even though I had a part of me removed, it all felt a bit too easy because I had cancer but I didn’t really suffer like my aunt. It was smooth sailing.
Oh, but then there is the old adage of speaking too soon. The coming months were about to give me a harsh lesson in emotional intelligence. And it reminded me that second chances weren’t always going to make me a bigger person.
CHEMOTHERAPY. It seemed like a friendly word since I had studied this stuff. Chemicals were my friends; they were good to me. My oncologist told me that I had stage three cancer, so even though the tumor was removed, there was still a risk of it returning. I didn’t mind having chemotherapy because oncology was a science and science had the safest solutions. Or so I thought.
Chemotherapy and the side effects that came with it was the proverbial backhand life had dealt me. This stuff was not the healing nectar of the gods but instead a poison that was designed to combat a foe much stronger than it. On some days, it stripped away my humanity until I felt like nothing more than a soulful thread of life just existing. I shared a dance floor with death but never got to dance with it.
I felt emotionally vulnerable. I became more forgiving towards those who wronged me in the past. I was immersed in a sea of fake pity and sympathy. I felt like people were waiting for me to get better so that they could go back to the insults and the gossiping behind my back. They wanted to build me up with their fake compliments so that they could break me back down again.
I started to feel paranoid all the time, and could never quite forgive people for their past indiscretions towards me. But once I started to feel a bit better, people start going back to their old ways again.
I removed cancer from my body. But it was time to remove the real cancers from my life. From this experience, I learned that you can forgive a snake for biting you, but your forgiveness means nothing to a snake that will bite you again.
On the really bad days, I felt afraid to share anything about my ordeal because I felt people might think I’m looking for attention or sympathy. I started to grow tired of people using my suffering as a platform to aggressively preach to me about their religious saviors. I started to get angry at ancestors I never met before that supposedly carried cancer in their genes. I hated anything associated with my lineage.
I started to hate vegans and vegetarians who made me feel as if I brought cancer upon myself for eating meat. I was tired of my medical aid restricting some medication because I wasn’t on a more expensive plan. Towards the end of my chemotherapy, I was emotionally tired of people and not the treatment itself.
From the shards of my ordeal, it was time to finally reassess my life and the connections I made with people in my immediate vicinity. Cancer wasn’t just a disease, it was a learning curve. I drew parallels between the two types of cancers in my life. There was one that grows and infiltrates all your organs, eventually killing you. And the other type that infiltrates your life because of bad judgment, lack of intuition, naivety and honestly believing that people change when all they do is hide their true nature behind a mask.
Human beings will always be disturbed by the news of a deadly disease. Everyone wants to try and be a better person towards a person afflicted with a deadly disease because we don’t want that person to die thinking that we were rotten human beings to them. But when faced with such a situation, I’d say the best thing we can do as humans is to be the same consistent person we have always been to them. It’s better to not care than to fake care.
During my time in the chemo-suite, I came across many people and their stories. I saw a young boy in his teens struggling to walk but bravely taking his chemo. I met people who were fighting cancer for the second and third time. I met people who had lovers walk away from them because they couldn’t deal with stresses of the disease. And yet they still bravely fought it.
Will it ever come back?
That is the kind of question that I ask myself every day. Every slight feeling of pain or discomfort sends me into a state of panic. But I draw inspiration from my many encounters with the disease and realize that even in the saddest moments and darkest hours, cancer taught me to be a better version of myself, to excise those who prevent me from being a better version of myself. And it taught me to appreciate the fortitude of others still fighting the disease or any other battle in life.