It’s a little past 11:30 on a warm December morning. The sky is blue, the air is fresh. Yet, there I sit with sweaty palms… holding on tightly.
Suddenly my seat feels an uncomfortable fit and my eyes well up. GULP! The room spins and everything slows down. BANG! My head drops … tear upon tear. I burst. Sobbing uncontrollably, I hold nothing in. With my head in my hands, I sob… cheeks turning a slimy red as the tears mix with the escaping mucous … burning and cooling in equal measure. I feel my wife’s nervous affection grab hold of me. “Not again”- I think to myself. My friend leaves his desk and places his arms around me. The room falls silent as we take in the news. GULP! I draw deep breathes… in through the nose and out the mouth. Twitching the neck left to right… I feel better… and manage to console myself. As I look up I catch a glimpse of my wife’s unease … I drift… and intermittently I hear the doctor’s words: “Regrettably, your cancer is back.” Those words still echo. I doubt they will ever leave…
Three months had passed since the original cancer went into remission. Having gone through it the first time, one would think I would have been able to handle the news better, but all I could see was grey … I saw clouds and lightning in a distant, grey ocean. I saw violent waves exploding off each other. And there I was… like drift wood… floating amidst this rampaging orchestra. I suspected this feeling would only intensify in the months to come.
Phase One: Chemotherapy – the necessary poison.
Each passing week brought with it the usual prick and a different prod. Infection and reflection traded places as the invasive vulnerability of the current reality spiralled, leaving one in a perplexingly confused state. This only served to heighten the unease. Concurrently, the chemotherapy was draining me – sapping not only my energy, but more significantly, my enthusiasm. With each passing treatment, the bone marrow transplant became more imminent… my anxiety ebbing and flowing as I awaited an uncertain outcome – which I was, told would culminate in the total destruction of my immune system.
Truth be told, I was scared. I tried not to show it… but I was. I wasn’t afraid of dying… no. On the contrary, I was prepared for that. Rather, I was scared that if things did not work out, I wouldn’t be able to play cricket with my son or enjoy the attention of my daughter. I was afraid of never being able to take in another sunrise with my wife. I was afraid of what I would miss out on. I was missing the little things that made life beautiful. The threat of infection was a reality. Fever was a possibility, and the reality of this hit home within the first month of treatment, when my fever peaked at 40 degrees. This uncertainty is what made the process scary. Not knowing how the body would react, and what tomorrow would bring, was a heavy burden to bear. I had to make peace with it fast, failing which I would slip and become depressed.
After a few sessions my white cell count was down. To remedy this I was introduced to an injection (Nupogen) which purpose I was told was to stimulate the production of my white blood cells. What they didn’t tell me was that it would bring with it a whole new meaning of pain. As it flowed, my bones began to ache. It was a debilitating pain that ached from inside out. A pain that not only made you grimace but one that temporarily rendered you handicapped. Again, I was told it was a necessary pain one that would stimulate my marrow to produce the necessary cells required to endure the chemo. Ouch! … I never knew such pain existed.
Tablet after tablet … your insides shriek at the very thought of your next intake. You become listless as the days slowly pass. Your body numbs as time seems to stand still. You forget how to swallow. With each passing minute, flavour starts to go – dissipating to the point that food merges into a singular taste… as nothingness spices the variety of shapes placed before you.
Phase Two: The Transplant days
Being placed in isolation for the transplant was one of the hardest experiences I have endured. A friendly welcome soon gives way to a week of high dosage chemotherapy. Your rest day is followed by a symbolic rebirth ceremony. And instead of sucking the marrow out of life, the marrow is sucked back into you – kick-starting a process of regeneration and recovery.
Your rebirth is a painful and lonely journey…in which your routine becomes your sanity.
As the dark night rises, your loneliness intensifies as you familiarise yourself with the different shades of black. Failure is not an option. Slip and you will find it hard to get up. But you cannot give in. You have to soldier on. Rage, rage against the dying light.
The nurses try their best to comfort you – but the struggle is very much your own. Battling along… every drop of energy is utilised to survive this incessant onslaught, as the poison pollutes your system. A necessary poison, I am reminded, needed to seek out and destroy these cancerous invaders. Ah, chemotherapy. I wouldn’t wish it for my enemy.
Soon you feel the effects, as the chemotherapy settles in. First, your energy goes, as the body is drained of its strength. Next, your appetite…followed by your peace of mind. Lastly, your spirit. It fades. Night after night, the room becomes a little bit darker, a little bit smaller. As the claustrophobia intensifies, so too does its eeriness. All the while, turmoil erupts within – robbing you of a good night’s rest.
Personal hygiene becomes an effort. Brushing one’s teeth begins to feel like stepping onto a bed of thorns. Religious obligations suffer as your concentration wanes. Your frustration builds further as food becomes a minefield of pain. Each morsel of nutrition rips at the flesh. Stab after stab, it slides along the lining like glass…as it makes its way down to your stomach.
By day 4 post-transplant – your body weak and nauseated – you succumb and agree to let them feed you through a pipe. And you’ve all but given up trying to brush your teeth. It’s just too painful.
By day 6, you can’t smile – for every movement feels like you’re being savaged by a Rottweiler. Even crying wreaks its own kind of havoc, as each tear hangs to your face like a blood thirsty leech.
By day 8, you are ready to throw in the towel. But you can’t. Bloated and somewhat lifeless, you lay in a pool of fallen hair. But again, you rage – mustering up just the right amount of courage to fight off the temptation to give in and garnering enough heart to get back onto the bike. (Quite literally: there was an exercise bike in the room). Being boxed into a room no bigger than 3m square strips one of their identity, as your name gives way to patient number 5, room 3.The dullness of passing time in an inebriated state stifles one’s will to fight.
As the darkness ascends, that’s when you are at your lowest. But then, all of sudden… PING! VIBRATE! VIBRATE! KNOCK! KNOCK! HELLO!
SOCIAL MEDIA – “When days are dark… friends are near.”
To survive, it’s imperative that you search out every last speck of light. Light, in all its forms, is essential for the cancer patient. If utilised correctly, social media has many benefits and is a useful tool in beating cancer.
I have a new found respect for technology, and particularly social media – for it afforded me the opportunity to stay in touch with my contacts… with minimal contact. This is relevant in the context that bone marrow patients are at a higher risk of infection (the immune system having been vaporised). Technology made boundaries smaller and allowed me to receive much needed encouragement from near and far. For with every PING! … I grew stronger … For all energy lost the vibrations renewed my vigour.
By day 13 post-transplant, I realised that every knock brought with it unconditional love. A simple “HELLO” would garner a spiritual reaction with which I would reclaim my fight. Random messages from places afar gave me a sense of purpose…and reason to rage against the dying light.
Strangers would soon become familiar. Friends became friendlier, and Family more important than ever. The outpouring of support was phenomenal…and much needed.
Strangers, acquaintances and long lost friends began messaging. Messages of hope and encouragement. Knowing that they took time out of their lives to think of you makes the patient happy. Family and friends braving the cold – peering through the window – increases your resolve and gives you that extra little push. A parent’s touch, and a brother’s recitation, reignited the soul… A wife’s prayer and gentle squeeze of the hand was enough to settle the aching heart. A sister’s encouragement, your children’s smile and crazy friends jokingly playing doctor or taking selfies through the window, all played its part in fighting off the demons and allowed you to smile again.
There’s something Godly in all of this.
I was reminded that grey is also a colour. Once you recognise this, it uplifts. It calms. It inspires. In equal measure. The road to recovery has many paths.
As the days passed, I soon realised that my difficulties were fast becoming a source of inspiration to others. It became clear that people wanted to take stock of their own lives and reflect on how to improve and be of benefit. Through Facebook, SMS, Whatsapp and word of mouth, my cancer was fast becoming an excuse to do good. It made me feel happy. It made me grateful.
You have to be grateful – no matter how desperate your situation. Gratefulness allows you to endure and fuels the fire that allows you to rage…and recapture your enthusiasm. It reminds you to never give up. Gratefulness was a useful tool in my recovery.
It’s important to remind yourself, and to be reminded, that no matter how bad you think your situation is, there is someone that may be worse off than you. So be grateful. Be grateful for your time… your health. Be grateful for your life and all that it encompasses.
Your mindset and attitude needs to be refreshed daily. Each individual will go about this in their own way. Knowing that out of the millions of people, you were chosen to endure a test is a tool to transcend your reality. At times it’s a test of attrition. But in the most unsuspecting manner, the reconstruction of your spirit soars with a positive attitude as each day brings the next challenge.
Positivity is a medicine that is free for all… and there’s nothing worse for the patient than being subjected to negativity whilst being confronted with an abnormal situation. A friend once told me that no misfortune is a misfortune…we should be so fortunate – for the misfortune affords us an opportunity to grow.
My advice for anyone visiting a cancer patient is to be happy. Happiness is infectious and a much needed source of light. Yes- respect the moment, but smile and speak kind words. Never underestimate the effect that a kind word has upon the psyche of the injured or sick. In moments of vulnerability, you need inspiration. So inspire… and be heroic.
The dark (k) night rises
In the movie “Batman Begins”, Bruce Wayne’s father imparts a piece of advice to his injured son: “Why do we fall? ….So that we can get back up.”
Every experience- good or perceivably bad is one from which we have to learn. It’s a reminder to better ourselves and be of benefit to others. Never shirk from the responsibility to do good. As the dark (k) night rises, goodness done for the sake of goodness warms the heart and adds colour, allowing the sun to slowly creep. Piercing the grey…and punching its way through… its light will spread. Vanquishing the dark and replacing it with a rainbow of colours which stir the soul. The heart, it beats anew, as life spreads. In the process one heart is connected to the next and in so doing the patient is enlivened. Purpose is restored. The will to fight is regained as Divine strength intercedes to resurrect the fallen champ.
I was being told that my fight was propelling people forward. In ways unknown to myself, I was giving strength to people. In the background to my story, energy was being created. Bouncing from one person to the next. The darkness that inhabited me was being reclaimed – morphing itself into something more pleasant. As hearts were being connected the dark (k) night was rising. Courage and enthusiasm returned. Weakness gave way to unexplained strength as excitement trickled its way back. My supposed bravery was being deemed heroic.
If GOD chose this way for me to become a hero, then so be it. I didn’t much care for spandex and a cape.
Looking back… I can definitely say that GOD is GREAT. I have always been a God-fearing person…but it’s when you become more God-conscious that you unknowingly touch people’s lives. In so doing the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Your interaction with others is something that should never be taken lightly- during the good times and the not so good. The teachings I received based on my way of life has benefitted me at a time I most needed it.
There is a verse in the noble Qura’an in which the Almighty tells us that He will not place a burden upon us with which we will not be able to handle. To understand the power of this verse and the effect it has on a person of faith … one needs to ponder upon all that was said above… pause… and reflect that each time you wanted to give up … something extraordinary happened… something which could not be seen … but which was felt.
Accepting one’s lot is a step in your recovery… Acknowledging that there is no burden which you cannot overcome is such a powerful tool in beating cancer and is probably the reason why patients, cancer patients in particularly, are viewed as being courageous.
Once you have made peace with your circumstances- that’s’ when you are able to focus on your recovery. Once you tell yourself that certain things are beyond your control- that’s’ when you can relax and allow the experts to assist. If you able to do the above that’s when allow the body, mind and soul to come together and cultivate an environment of success. It’s a daily cultivation… and one if looked after- allows you to rage … to smile… and to persevere, beautifully.
It is in these moments of corrective reflection that you find heaven on earth … and which enables one to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Bridges are built all the time…but you may never know when the need to cross one will arise. It’s best to be prepared.
My family and friends were a source of light during the darkest of days. And I have realised that in order to endure any trial, your relationship with people during the good times will ultimately benefit you.
Illness is unexpected, so it’s best to be prepared when the time comes to rise up.
Life is beautiful.
I love that saying. What’s important is to make it count.
Peace. Love. #Cancercanbebeaten.
By Zaheer Parker – father, son, attorney, cricket enthusiast and lover of Nando’sJ