Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Opinion: Cancer is such a pain

A forum writer, Jeremy wrote to The Straits Times today, Wednesday 14 March calling for support/jobs for cancer patients as he spoke candidly about his own battle with this deadly disease.


Indeed, cancer is costly, far too costly – financially, emotionally and physically.  Besides the patient going through enormous pain and suffering, their immediate relatives who could include their spouse, children and siblings will also have to struggle with uncontrollable emotions as they feel helpless.


When patients are hit by this life -threatening illness, they feel that they are unable to manage or control changes caused by cancer or normal life activities. The end result is that they become distressed and will most likely fall into depression.  Stress has become increasingly recognised as a factor that can reduce the quality of life of cancer patients.


Some 20 years ago, my wife and I were often awakened early in the morning to the painful groaning of an elderly man who lived opposite our block on the upper floors. We lived on the 5th storey.  It was so pitiful hearing his daily cries.


Then one morning, we heard a loud thud on the floor of his block. The man committed suicide. I guess the pain he endured was just too much for him to bear.


There are several types of cancer treatment that is available here. Some patents may need just one treatment for their cancer.  Depending on how advance the cancer has grown, some patients may require a combination of treatments that includes surgery with chemotherapy and/or radiation. External beam radiation therapy is used to treat many types of cancer. Brachytherapy is often used to treat cancers of the head and neck, breast, cervix, prostate, and eye. Systemic radiation therapy is most often used to treat certain types of thyroid cancer.


My sister-in-law, Bridgette who is married to my twin brother Roy was fortunate because her breast cancer was successfully treated with radiation therapy.  In many ways, the stress of taking care of her husband and her son who has a bipolar condition, added with her own clinical depression took a heavy toll on her plus her family.


Psychologists, psychiatrists and those in mental healthcare don’t have it easy and their stress levels can skyrocket given that everyday in their line of work, they have to listen to the problems of the mentally ill, and at times, from their caregivers.


Dr. Joe Kahl, the Chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente (USA) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  After going through a set of treatments, he thought that he was cured of the deadly disease.  But he was so wrong.  The cancer returned and Dr Kahl was given only a few months to live.  With kids to support in college, the doctor who was under 50 years could not face his friends.  Devastated, he questioned why he had to suffer such a fate when he had maintained a healthy lifestyle and trusted in God.


"I often wonder why I got cancer.  I had been good.  I never smoked.  I watched my diet. I exercised.  I do not drink excessively.  Never took drugs.  I pray every day and attend church service.  From all signs I had been living a model life.  So, why me? Why me?" the despondent doctor questioned.

There has never been a satisfactory answer to suffering.  Human beings suffer because there is no other way to mature and grow.  But it is only through suffering that we can become more aware.  Certainly, awareness is the key.   

Awareness on   any issue, including death is useful. For instance, while cancer can cause much suffering, the good news is that it prepares us for death. We know that sooner or later we will be gone from the face of the earth. That is when relatives and the patient can plan well ahead on what to do, such as sale of property sharing and monies among immediate relatives, buying of a niche in a columbarium, making a will etc.

My late wife’s parents both died of cancer. Doris’ father, Lau Pai Tee had cancer attack his brain, and within two days of admission into a nursing home, he passed away peacefully. His was a quick death.  Her mother, Sim Bak Eng on the other hand had to battle cancer of the stomach for some time, but being the doting mother that she was to Doris never revealed that the lump in her stomach was cancerous – even though Doris kept probing her mom on the unusual growth.

Her dad’s passing was not too big a blow to my wife, but when news broke out that her mother was dying of cancer in Mount Alvernia Hospital, her relapse of schizophrenia came fast and furious. More so when she could only see her mom in hospital, but could not engage in conversation as the cancer caused extensive damage to her body. Her mother loved her dearly and she burst into tears when the nurse handed Doris a bunch of grapes. Her mother knew that grapes was her daughter’s favourite fruit. The grapes that her mother left for Doris was an invaluable gift to cement her love for her beloved daughter.  That tore Doris’ mind and heart apart.

The healthcare staff comprising of the doctors and nurses at the hospital were understanding and tried their best to comfort my wife.  When I rushed down after a company event, they were accommodating and allowed me to be with Doris and my mother-in-law even though it was past the normal visiting hours. They felt our pain.

During the funeral service, Doris never stopped crying and I knew that it was just a matter of days when Doris had to be hospitalised where Electro Convulsive Treatment (ECT) had to be administered.

At the wake, relatives, neighbours and friends lined up to pay their respects to Doris' mother and family.   I knew that we had to go through this mourning period together.  Reflecting on that time, I think my most helpful contribution was being fully involved – sharing her grief, crying together and holding each other.  I remember how uncomfortable I felt wearing clothes made out of gunny sacks.  But I tolerated the discomfort because I had to give my wife the vital support during those most depressing moments. 

For a couple of years Doris could not get over her mother's death.  Whenever a Buddhist funeral wake was held near our block or when the hungry ghost festival began, she would start feeling depressed.  The chanting of prayers reminded her of her own mother's passing. 

I stood by my wife all the 8 months that was needed to bring her to a full recovery.  It was yet another difficult journey in my life.

Indeed, cancer is such a pain.
Raymond Anthony Fernando

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