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Quiet Intruder

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It is Christmas time.  There is Christmas music in the air coming from the lobby.  As I look down from upstairs I see a small group of young men and women near a grand piano.  Someone’s fingers make that piano belch out beautiful music as the group sings.  They are wearing Santa’s red hat.  The conductor’s hand goes up and down as they sing – Dashing through the snow.  Snow rarely ever comes to Houston.

I am at a hospital that specializes only in cancer.  It is supposed to be one of the best in the world.  This facility, in particular, is devoted to breast cancer.  I have been coming here for over a year now.  People come from all over the world.  One can hear people talking in different languages.  The hospital also provides interpreters if necessary.  I notice people of all ages, mostly women.  Beautiful girls in their teens or twenties are accompanied by their mother or father.  Elderly women are accompanied by their spouses of many decades.  Or perhaps by their daughter as the woman may be single late in her life.  I see some young women accompanied by, I assume, their spouse or boyfriend.  Some wear a woollen cap to cover their clean-shaven head.  I suppose chemo made them lose their once beautiful hair.  The uninvited quiet intruder called cancer brought them all here with a hope to beat that enemy.  The intruder is ruthless.  Quietly it multiplies and overwhelms the natural defenders, the immune system.

I too am here with my wife of almost five decades.  She would rather have the daughters with her.  But they live in another city; they have young children, and have jobs.  They take turns and come to be with their mother as much as they can.  I am a no-good old person.  What do I know about cancer and modern medicine?  Although I feel fine, my dear wife thinks I am old and beginning to lose memory, my hearing is getting worse.  She also doesn’t like my driving.  So, I ride as a passenger and I am here only as an assistant just in case.

There are signs everywhere – make cancer history, don’t fall, cover your cough, and wash your hands.  There are hand sanitizers everywhere.  They pass out face masks as one comes into the building.  Doors open automatically as you approach, even the restroom doors.  No, they don’t want us get germs from anything.  My wife goes in to see her doctor while I wait outside in the lobby.  I take a seat keeping an eye on her rollaway bag.  It has her belongings and a thermos with hot tea, some snacks, my iPad, and a puzzle book to pass the time.  We arrive in the wee hours of the day to avoid city traffic, which still doesn’t help much.  But it is still worth living in a big city where some of the best medical facilities are available.  As I settle down, I brood over the intruder.  Two women, one old and the other fairly young settle down on a couch in front of me.  I found out that they drove eight hours to be here from a little rural town in Arkansas.  The elderly woman has had cancer for over a year.  Her daughter was not happy with the treatment her mother received with no improvement.  So they are here.  They are not used to such a big city and are not sure where to spend the night.  With what little I knew I advised them to talk to “patient service”.  The hospital has a relationship with many hotels nearby that provide discounts for its patients.  Yes, it is not only the treatment with no certainty of cure, but it also creates a logistical nightmare for some patients.  But who would not like to live?  It is the lust for life.

Cancer, the uninvited intruder, the parasite that thrives on your blood is trying to kill the unsuspecting host!  There are apparently over 200 types of cancer classified by the type of cell it initially affects.  To name a few – Anal cancer, Bladder cancer, Bone cancer, Breast cancer, Cervical cancer, Colon cancer, Colorectal cancer, Endometrial cancer, Kidney cancer, Leukemia, Liver cancer, Lymphoma, Ovarian cancer, Pancreatic cancer, Prostate cancer, Stomach cancer, Testicular cancer, Thyroid cancer, Vaginal cancer, Vulvar cancer.  Then these can spread all over the body from the initial location.  It is a vicious disease, many times with subtle or no known symptoms.  That’s what happened to my wife.

By the time cancer is diagnosed, it may be too late for certain types of cancer.  Life and death, beginning and end are normal in nature.  A life ends.  A new one is born using the genetic blueprint of a male and a female through their act of love lovemaking as nature’s way of procreation.  Genes continue to carry on the eternal journey using living beings as the gene carriers.  At the cellular level, cells too die and it is replaced by new cells of a similar kind.  Yet, there are anomalies to that normal process from time to time.  Unlike the normal cells programmed death, cancer cells defy that process, and continue to live, grow and divide (multiply) creating a massive abnormal cell resulting in a tumor.  If the tumor stays in one place, its adverse effect on the human body may be somewhat limited.

Unfortunately, dangerous (malignant) cells manage to spread throughout the body via blood or lymphatic system.  A cell sticks at another location, divides, creates blood vessels to feed itself, grows, and creates another colony.  The unfortunate fact is that the spread of cancerous cells somehow manages to hide from the defenses of the immune system as if flying under the radar.  Once such an invasion by the cancerous cells takes place undetected or undefended by the immune system, cancer manages to overpower and destroy other healthy tissues.  At that point, it is very difficult to treat.  Most of the time death comes with pain and suffering.  Even aggressive medication, chemotherapy and radiation may prolong life temporarily, but without a quality of life.

The treatment, radiation or doses of chemo, varies depending on the type of cancer, stage of cancer and general physiological state of the patient.  The doses are lots of time determined mathematically based on historical and probabilistic data after many tests and trials.  Some tend to live many years after such treatments and others leave the stage a lot sooner ending their act on this earth.  The end result is the same.  The best chance to fight against Cancer is knowing the root causes (and avoiding/eliminating those detrimental causes such as tobacco, asbestos, arsenic, radiation, too much exposure to the Sun, automobile exhaust, knowing genetic predisposition and anything that may weaken the immune system (such as Hepatitis B and C, HIV), etc.), early detection and treatment.

I recall the time when I had volunteered for an organization called Sunshine Kids i.e. an organization for children with cancer.  I had no direct contact with cancer patients.  It seemed like it was always the other people who suffered from such tragedies.  I even ran some long-distance runs to raise funds for “Sunshine Kids”, a charitable organization for children with cancer.  Once or twice a year the organization arranged for a fun day outdoors for such kids with cancer to bring a little happiness in their life for a day instead of being stuck within the four walls of their hospital.  Every kid was assigned a chaperone.  I was to accompany a beautiful girl of maybe around 10 with her shiny shaven head at the Astroworld (an amusement park, with all sorts of rides that don’t exist anymore).  She wanted to ride all the rides including the dreaded Texas Cyclone and ran from ride to ride while I, an adult was getting dizzy trying to keep up with her.  It seemed like it was the happiest day in her life with her ear-to-ear smiles.  At least for a day she wasn’t thinking about those pesky intruders or wasn’t feeling the pain.  Her smile, her happiness had made me happy that day.  Yet a few years later we witnessed the pain and suffering of a dear friend.  She was the life of our small community.  She died of breast cancer at 51 leaving her one and only teenage son behind.  Life goes on.

So, the uninvited intruder, the horrible parasite takes shelter in your body thriving on your blood and then slowly kills the unsuspecting host through pain and suffering.  It doesn’t even spare women’s breasts.  Breast that is the beauty of Venus, the breast that provides life-sustaining milk to an infant, the breast that draws attention and attraction of the male species, the breast without which a woman perhaps feels incomplete.  Now it is happening to my wife like many others.  The dreaded disease arrived at our home.  It is said that one out of three women in America gets breast cancer.  My wife did not smoke or drink.  She has practically no bad habits.  She has been more careful about what she eats.  Yet it came without a warning.  She went through chemotherapy, a single mastectomy along with the removal of some lymph nodes so that those pesky cancer cells could not spread and take over the beautiful body, and then the radiation – all one after another.  The hospital has installed a port for infusion of chemo to be used again and again.  The nurses, mostly Filipino and I think they are the best, take care of the infusion with a smile.  Sometimes someone, dressed like a Butler at a hotel, brings lunch to her.  Other times if she has a break in between her appointments, we go down to the restaurant on the second floor for breakfast or lunch.  She only tries a few things.  My wife wears a woolen cap to cover her head.  She is tired all the time.

No matter what, women want their privacy.  So, both of our daughters help my wife.  They take turns coming from a city far away.  They have little kids.  They are also working moms. So, when they are not around it is just me and my wife.  The house is awfully quiet.  It doesn’t feel like a home anymore.  She is easily irritated with me.  She can’t taste anything she eats, if any, gets only a metallic taste.  No, I have no firsthand experience.  She doesn’t want my help.  At home, I do what little I can.  But she doesn’t like my cooking; I admit I am not a good cook.  So, she tries to cook simple stuff that would not upset her stomach.  She also doesn’t like my driving anymore, although I might have driven a million miles in the past.  She thinks, as I am getting old, I have become an erratic driver.  I feel useless and helpless.  Our married life is taking a downward spiral.  But we continue with hope, hope for a day in the sunshine.

My mind wanders with all these thoughts in the midst of strangers.  We are all in the same boat to a degree.  We have a lot in common, yet we feel lonely.  The hospital has become a familiar place.  The same routine every time – patient signs in, tells her (or his, yes man can get it too although rare) name and date of birth to the attending nurses for verification, the identification band strapped on the wrist.  Then the patient goes for vital signs, lab work, EKG, mammogram, and on and on.  A group of doctors (oncologists for chemo, surgery, and radiation) and nurses work as a team for each patient.  The chemo flows down a tube through the port – first the anti-nausea & anti-vomiting medication Zofran and then the real thing.  They also give ice packs to my wife to keep her fingers and toes cool as the chemo drips into her.  She has lost weight.  She remains tired.  She hardly talks to me anymore.  The house remains deathly quiet until the daughters show up.   I wake up early, tip-toe around the house without turning on the lights and go for a walk in the neighborhood in the wee hours of the day through the darkness using a small flashlight to keep myself sane and return home before she wakes up to prepare her bowl of cereal with almond milk for her. She eats her cereal without a word.  Even my ‘Good Morning’ doesn’t get an audible response.  I can not read her mind.  I wish I knew what’s going through her mind day in and day out.

It has been over a year now.  She is making progress.  Doctors are very happy with her progress.  I am not a very religious person.  I had been to Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, and Hindu temples in the past.  It has been a long time since I stopped going to any of these as I felt that organized religions have only divided people spreading hatred.  However, I believe in some superpower, call it nature or whatever. Now I pray regularly, quietly in the corner of a room where my wife had set up an altar with pictures of some Hindu gods.  Perhaps I am hoping for a miracle.  My only wish is “Please don’t take her away before me”.  No matter what, I love her very much.  On the wedding night several decades ago I made a vow and married her for life, for better or for worse.  I don’t worry whether I am loved or not anymore.  My mother had told me when I was just a boy that when you love someone or give something, do not expect anything in return.  I did not understand it then.  I just want my wife to get well and be the person I had married with a shy smile on her face, love in her heart, and happiness in her mind.  So, I just wait patiently with the hope that this storm in our life will pass, too.





Lohit Datta-Barua (USA)

Dr. Lohit Datta-Barua has lived in Houston since 1973. As an inspiring writer and contributor to social justice he continues to touch people’s lives. As of 2019 Datta-Barua has authored eleven books, six in English, and five in his mother tongue Assamese. His latest book, “One Long Journey” is primarily a story of survival and hope in the face of of adversity and social upheaval, which Datta-Barua hopes can inspire his readers. All proceeds from “One Long Journey” go for orphan welfare.

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