10 March, 2021
When prayer is not enough

Author: Dr. M. Suneetha, Radiation Oncology

Prayers bring comfort to the mind, particularly when the body is ailing. Yet if the fine line between faith and superstition is breached it can bring on catastrophe and doom especially if the disease is cancer.

Wilson, in his early 40s, belonged to a middle-class family from Secunderabad. Well-educated he worked for a private firm. But the stress at the workplace caused by frequent deadlines led to repeated aphthous ulcers in his mouth. Since these ulcers more or less healed on their own he was not bothered. Then his uneven teeth caused ulcers repeatedly at the same spot on his tongue. It gradually increased in size and turned painful as well. His dentist recommended grinding the rough edge but Wilson delayed the procedure till the pain became unbearable. The dentist found the ulcer to be suspicious and immediately did a biopsy which came out positive for malignancy. Wilson was referred to an oncologist.

Wilson belonged to a devout Christian family and religiously visited church every Sunday. The pastor had stressed on the power of prayers time and again and Wilson took his sermon in literal terms and decided to pray to God to heal his cancer instead of visiting an oncologist. His belief had been vetted in the past since he felt his problems at work and financial difficulties had been solved due to prayers. Hence, every day they conducted the prayer meetings at home along with their close friends and relatives. This went on for the next one month and by now the cancer had spread to the entire tongue.

On a Sunday morning after they attended church they met the pastor to seek blessings and then he realized that Wilson’s speech had altered. He was told about the diagnosis and the family’s decision to pray to heal him. Scolding the family for their foolishness he said, “When I am sick I go to a doctor for treatment and here you have cancer, yet you chose to forego treatment. This is sheer foolishness on your part. What can God do if we humans don’t do what is required ?” Wilson was immediately rushed to the hospital by the preacher.

A surgeon examined him initially but the ulcer was not amenable to surgery as it was locally advanced with a few swollen bilateral neck nodes and he was referred for radical radiation therapy.

Wilson came with his wife and two cute little daughters. The family’s anxiety for his condition was evident yet I couldn’t figure out whether it was his innocence or foolishness or the reluctance stemmed from apprehensions about a painful treatment that had led to the delay. I realized this has nothing to do with education and socio-economic status. Wilson immediately gave consent and our treatment plan included radiotherapy for 35 fractions and weekly chemotherapy.

Going through radiation was not easy for him as he had severe mucositis which involved lot of painful ulcers, an inflamed tongue, oral cavity, and severe pain in the throat. He couldn’t swallow food and we had to insert a nasogastric tube through the nose to maintain his nutrition.

Thankfully, there was a partial response to radiotherapy. The tumor was still on the tongue and I reached out to the surgeon to do some salvage surgery to get rid of cancer. We decided upon an interval of 6 weeks to allow the area to heal from the side effects of radiation and then go for the surgery.

The entire tongue was removed through glossectomy along with neck dissection surgery to remove the nodes. Though Wilson was cured of the disease but he lost his voice completely.

It is unfortunate that people like Wilson, due to lack of awareness, fail to take this disease seriously. He and his family paid a heavy price since he lost his voice when he could have been cured completely if he had not delayed in consulting an oncologist. After all God helps those who they help themselves.

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