Waiting to exhale


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Category: Health Care 27 Dec 08


Over Christmas drinks, I was commiserating with a doctor who administers chemotherapy. I must have had a trace of bitterness in my voice when I said after spending six years watching what it did to my brother, I didnít think going through cancer made anyone a better personóa platitude that offers no comfort. (I was remembering his countless surgeries, the needles, the blocked veins, the perpetual nausea, the financial erosion, the physical limitation, and ultimately the loss of hope).

What it did show us is that your immediate family is like a single body. When one family member dies, you feel like your own limb, or heart is torn. At least thatís how my parents, sister and I felt. Itís why my heart goes out to Mr Manning and his wife and children and I am glad he will be recuperating with them this Christmas.
Hundreds of families go through this every year. They sit and watch their loved ones wither and die. They are split in twoóthe way they were before the cancer and the nightmare they never wake up from.

Earlier this year, I encountered a woman, barely 30, with two small children have to deal with ovarian cancer. She couldnít afford surgery. Her family had to stand in a line at St James to get her chemotherapy prescription administered in a public placeówhere cancer patients watch one another suffer and die.
When her aunt had surgery for colon cancer, she visited, wearing sexy boots, skirts and make-up pretending, along with the rest of the family, that the lump the surgeons removed wasnít cancerous. She held her aunt's hand and comforted her.

Perk up

The auntís prognosis was poor. Unless she got state-of-the art treatment, the world's finest drugs, she would die in four months. But she pretended she didnít know; didnít want to talk about it. Except, we knew she knew when she turned her head to one side and wept. By this time, chemotherapy had destroyed the young girlís hair. She wore a jaunty hat and came to her auntís house to show her how well you can look despite it. The aunt perked up. She decided that if she followed the doctorís orders she would recover. She wore a pretty nightie every day. She took her vitamins. She even danced once when the family next door held a wedding reception. She tried to help herself. She forced herself to walk outdoors. Then she stopped.

Her nephew got angry with her. She must stop wearing nighties in the day he said, in a rage that barely disguised the tears. She must wear a dress and sit in the verandah. We had to persuade the nephew that she was too tired now. The girl with the sexy boots and the two children was too ill to attend the auntís funeral a month later. She died with her small children around her. Cancer makes you breathe in and hold your breath while waiting and hoping for the cure, and you get toxic while waiting to breathe out. In my brotherís case, initially we tried the local health system. We tried the local chemotherapy options. It was a miserable option.

The five of us trooped into dreary rooms filled with cancer patients and their IV dripsóunable to offer up courage. Around the same time, one of my dearest friends, with three young boys, developed cancer. While she was rallying and doing chemo (she said it felt like a nuclear blast in her head), I was able to talk to my brother about her hope; although I couldnít bear to visit my friend any moreósomething I know hurt her, but how much cancer can you take?

She went to Venezuela, turned to natural medicine, then died. My brother knew she died but we both pretended she hadnít and they were both going to be okay. Hope comes in strange canisters. We got wonderful treatment abroad that with stage four cancer my brother lived for six years with minimal side effects. It was financially crippling, but most people donít even have this option.

Bad is bad

You may not agree with the Prime Ministerís policies, but you have to look at him at two levels. Firstly, as a man who, having been struck with cancer, is deserving of our compassion. Secondly, as a Prime Minister who can be an active agent of courage. Not courage that is false and dredged out, but real courage. He himself doesnít have faith in our system, and rightly so. Itís still not too late to divert funds from big buildings to people, from big conferences to healthcare, from big industrial plants to education. I no longer want to pretend that ďgood thingsĒ come from bad. If itís bad itís bad. Mr Prime Minister, we wish you well. In the meantime, your nation is waiting to breathe out.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur