x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

When a loved one has cancer, pain is the best-kept secret

You just have to mention cancer to a group of friends, and someone is bound to have a family member who has had or is struggling with the disease in one of its many forms. What a menace.

When you listen to people making their daily prayers, or duaa, you often hear health, wealth or success, and stronger faith in the top-three of a wish list. Depending on your own situation, you may ask for strength, or for patience, or even for a break from a problem that is causing you great pain and grief.

Today, I will be reflecting on an issue that we all have to think about, however unpleasant, especially when it is in peril: health. Even if you exercise, eat well and take good care of yourself, there will be a time when your health lets you down.

And when it does, it can be a terrible time indeed.

I am haunted by a scene that keeps replaying in my mind. I was in Mecca covering the Haj in 2008, and during one of the rituals, I saw a father holding a sleeping infant up to the heavens and begging.

"Please Allah, please, make her better and give me her illness instead. Please, take me instead," he cried, tears running down his young but anguished face. I found out that that tiny child had paediatric cancer.

You just have to mention cancer to a group of friends, and someone is bound to have a family member who has had or is struggling with the disease in one of its many forms. What a menace.

It has already taken several members of my family, including my grandmother just last year, and now it has hit yet another family member.

Like many people, I hate hospitals and dental clinics, and that particular odour on their premises that triggers bad memories.

And now, I have no choice. There are 10 beds in this room I have to visit soon. Each is cordoned off by flimsy curtains that are pulled back every time a bed empties in anticipation of the next occupant. And no bed remains empty for long.

This is just one of the rooms dedicated to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Some come for three hours, some for seven and some spend the night. There are patients of all ages, genders, nationalities and classes.

In one of the beds is my mother, who has decided to smuggle in her mobile phone to chat with me during her chemo session.

With her bright smile and twinkling eyes, she convinces the nurses to allow her to bring in her phone to speak to her children "who are all away, far away from me, supporting us". In all of this, she is proving to be the strongest one of us.

My mother puts her phone on speaker, and we talked for an hour or so of her three-hour session. Sometimes, nearby patients join in and explain what they are in for, and how many sessions of chemo they have left, and how lucky or unlucky they are to have this type or that stage of the disease.

There are theories of why they got it, how eating ginger and pomegranate seeds helps, and what they feel and don't feel anymore. The pain is often the last topic they touch.

In that room, there are no boundaries. They are one family, all cancer patients fighting for their lives. There is a 60-year-old Saudi woman who does her sewing while in session, a teenage boy from Lebanon who plays video games on a hand-held console, a 27-year-old Syrian woman who is catching up on her reading, and the list goes on.

I was baffled by how they were joking, how they laughed at experimenting with different wigs, how my mother says "I am a platinum blond now" in the middle of the chatter. She is blond, but never dared to put the extra bleach in her hair.

The roles have changed, and now I know a little how parents feel who have an ill child. It is easy to say, OK, I am going to quit my job and be there with you. But then who will pay the bills? You feel trapped.

People hate to say it, but money is the new goal of this world. Without it, you can't get the right treatment, or any treatment really.

But the worst part is this: most of the cancer patients are keeping their illnesses a secret from their extended families. We were doing that as well (until I wrote this column, at least), mainly for my sake, as there is an ugly stigma. A family with cancer can be treated like a family that is cursed.

This idea stigma about cancer is absurd. The disease does not discriminate and can come to anyone at any time. It's ironic that we discriminate when cancer does not.



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