Author: Dr. M. Suneetha, Radiation Oncology
The general perception about non-resident Indians is that they are extremely fortunate, earning vast sums of money while living a life of luxury but I have witnessed their helplessness and misery upon leaving their elderly, lonely parents behind, particularly when they are unwell; and despite the large earnings nothing, not even money, can ease the sorrow of their ailing mother and father.
I remember Sharada, in her late 60s, who had come to see me alone. Usually, patients are accompanied by two or three close relatives, hence, it was an unusual situation. She was carrying her reports and kept quiet when I asked about her complaints. Then I inquired why she was alone and at this point, her lips trembled, and then she broke down completely. In between her tears, she told me she has two daughters, the eldest, a software engineer in Australia, and the other – a gynecologist in Dubai. Three months ago her husband had passed away suddenly after a cardiac arrest.
Her daughters had come home to take care of the funeral arrangements and other rituals and then returned to their jobs and families. Meanwhile, Sharda’s woes were compounded by postmenopausal bleeding. However, Sharada never confided to her daughter though she was a gynecologist because she did not want them to be anxious. But after a while the continuous bleeding forced Sharada to speak to her physician-daughter who immediately told her to consult a fellow gynecologist, practicing in the city. Investigations and biopsy revealed it as cervical cancer. Since the disease was already in stage II she was referred directly to the radiation OPD. Sharada didn’t have any relatives in the city and she came alone to meet me. She was quite close to her daughters and longed to have them around her but just like a typical mother, would not utter even one word on the matter. She continued to assure them that she would be able to take care of herself. I spoke to her daughter over the phone and advised her to hire a caregiver. Sharada was depressed, grieving for her husband, and longing for daughters.
She cursed her fate and often wished she had died along with her husband. Now, because of her disease, her daughters were anxious but at the same time they could not take her abroad because of the high cost of treatment. However, I counseled her on the necessity of going through the treatment; otherwise, she would suffer and in turn, cause more suffering to her daughters since we cannot plan our deaths. We decided to start her treatment the very next
The next day to my surprise, her daughter accompanied Sharada and for the first time, I could see her face radiant with a smile. The dark clouds of anxiety and loneliness had vanished over the horizon with the appearance of the warm rays of the sun. Her daughter had been granted emergency leave on the basis of the investigative reports that her physician friend had faxed to her.
Sharada’s neighbors, however, had played on her fears saying that radiation therapy was like an electrical shock and she would suffer immensely during the treatment. Though she was still apprehensive after we both explained the procedure to her the fact that her daughter was with her helped her to overcome all her doubts. After the day’s therapy, she came out of the room with a wide smile on her face. We explained to her about a few side effects like loose motion, nausea or vomiting which she might experience but those will be managed with medicines as and when required. Meanwhile, the daughter arranged for a caregiver, a distant relative, who will stay with Sharada during the course of the treatment.
Once Sharada gained the confidence she insisted her daughter should go back to Dubai. She had already paid for the treatment and made the necessary arrangements for her mother’s care. She left for Dubai but throughout her mother’s treatment, she would send messages every morning, at times to inquire about her mother’s well-being and sometimes simply to thank me. In fact, my day started with her message. During the third week of the treatment, Sharada had severe diarrhea and as she had other comorbidities like diabetes and obesity I admitted her to the hospital for symptomatic management. Every morning Sharada used to eagerly wait for me during my rounds.
Now she was due for internal radiation and Sharada was once again terrified because of her ill-advising neighbors. Relatives, friends, and neighbors often cause severe havoc because of their sheer ignorance about cancer and its treatment, leaving the patients extremely vulnerable. I often refer to them as “ the 4 o’clock visitors” because they only turn up during visiting hours, ramble some untruths and lies about the disease or the treatment and leave once the visiting hours end – happy that they have fulfilled their social obligations. If you really want to help a cancer patient, you should chip in with the household chores or accompany them on their hospital visits, either for consultation or for tests. If there are 30 friends or relatives each can share the chores for a day and it would mean a lot to the patient who struggles psychologically and physically, especially if he or she is alone like Sharada.
I tried my best to counsel Sharada as it is critical for cervical cancer patients to complete the treatment, otherwise, the disease may come back. Since she was eager to avoid any complication that might trouble her daughters Sharada finally agreed to it. It is amazing what a parent readily goes through for the sake of their children. That day I was busy in consultation when I got a call from my team members from the brachytherapy room, saying that the patient was not ready to start the treatment in my absence. I could do the procedure only after I finished the consultation of all my outdoor patients yet Sharada waited for me with infinite patience.
Throughout the procedure, she would only think about her daughters. We successfully completed the treatment and at present, her cancer is in full remission. Sharada was all alone as she battled cancer yet it was her unconditional love for her daughters and the close bond they shared which helped her to sail through those difficult months.