Circa January 2002. Old Sabah Medical Center, Likas.
This time I came alone. And I came in a very belligerent mood. I wanted to challenge the doctor alone. I wanted to shame him into doing his most aggressive medicine-fu without her being present.
ME: Doc, could the white spots [on the x-ray pics] on her liver be anything else?
DOCTOR (Resident Oncologist @ SMC] : It not impossible but with her history, I don’t think so. The cancer has spread to her liver.
ME: Can you give her more chemo?
DOCTOR: I could but her body is so weak she can’t stand chemo anymore.
His eyes misted over. My tears were rolling hot down both my cheeks.
ME: Is there anything else? Can you do surgery?
DOCTOR: There’s nothing I can do for her anymore. If there is anything you want to do, she wants to do, any treatment, go ahead. I give your permission.
10 months later, Mona, my wife was dead. An incommensurate tragedy, a bitter bitter pill laced with the dozens of painful radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 5 years of taking everything the doctors had wanted to do to her, of excruciating pains, and finally, goddammit, nothing to show for it.
I guess for many of us who have not yet seen cancer up close, the disease is a far-away, perhaps even an abstract, concept: An illness you hear of that some not-so-close friend or distant relative has contracted or a condition you see Merly Streep act with her Oscar-winning talents in a movie. And so it was with us: the extent of our knowledge of the disease was limited to what we learned when we scanned through an article in a newspaper.
Cancer is a inexorable wasting disease. A disease that is multi-faceted, multi-variated and ever-shifting. Even now, multi-millionaires, presumably with all the wealth in the world to engage the best doctors and access cutting-edge technology and treatments, still die of cancer.
I wish I had Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Emperor of All Maladies (The 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non Fiction) fifteen years ago. The author calls his book “A biography of cancer” but it is more that that: he tells about the efforts and frustrations of the doctors and scientists who sought cures for the disease, he relates the hopes and pains, and desperation of cancer patients, and he educates the reader on why cancer is such a difficult malady to combat and cure.
In the words of one reviewer: “The brilliance of this book is the effortlessness with which the author draws the reader into the world of cancer and keeps him there as a tourist or witness. Dr. Mukherjee’s engaging style, precision of prose and overwhelming compassion imbue this work with an energy that carries the reader along a ride like none other.“
Here’s the New York Times review of this fine, fine book.