A Tale of Survivor of Cancer
After six months of continental tour of Europe, America and Canada and happy reunion with the relatives there my wife was glad to find her in good shape. Fitness concept is in our blood; regular morning walk and balanced diets are our forte. We keep miles away from junk foods, and fizzy drinks. Fruits and veggies are regular; canned stuff to the minimal and always keep our palate in check. Yet, a strange thing happened: she began losing weight, making her happier despite never being overweight. I, too, thought it was good to be lean in old age. Obesity is a disease per se, adding burden to the bony frame and the living. In our zest for slimming we became blind to the rapidity of the fall. She lost over five kg within a week. Hardly a month passed by since then, she experienced a sort of heaviness in the middle of sternum – right under the ribs. Could it be a symptom of ulcer? She was suffering from threatening suspicion inwardly for some time in her lonely dreaming.
The suspicion was deeply grounded in her mind. On the very first appointment this was told to the medical specialist, who immediately referred her to the general surgeon. His diagnosis was, ‘simple infection’; a few antibiotic pills would set her right within a week. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. We moved to gastroenterologist, who ran us through endoscopy, ultrasound and colonoscopy one after another -- still, leading to no clue.
One night she developed unbearable pain in the stomach. Another gastroenterologist diagnosed it as “functional dyspepsia’. At the most it would take one week, he said. His prescription too, proved ineffective. Then, a battery of nine tests followed, omitting the blood test, because it was found normal, six months ago, and prior to the start of her journey. Out of nine tests only CEA value was found to be a bit elevated.
CEA stands for ‘carcino- embryonic antigen’. Carcino is related to cancer. Worried, I had a chat, on the Internet, with one Dr. Jasmina, who explained many causes for elevated value of this, but assured me, it need not be a precursor of cancer.
But it was not to be: subsequent blood test diagnosed a deadly blood cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia: AML, for short. It was appalling enough to crush my spirit. On top of it the oncologist told on the first day, “At this age the prognosis is not good”. She was over sixty.
With the ominous thought of looming gloomy future we agreed for dreaded chemotherapy, as no other alternatives could be applicable to her, due to age. A plethora of other ailments emerged – loss of appetite, vomiting, and shivering fever. Weeks passed, with no sign of any improvement. A free fall of blood counts continued unchecked. With abysmal low count of white blood cells there was frightening prospect of infection messing up the whole affair. Rock bottom platelet counts might lead her to non-stop bleeding on the slightest of miss-steps. Frequent blood and platelet transfusion became a routine. But, platelet donors were hard to find as majority fall short of the required condition.
I had no choice but to bear the agony. Worried and with heavy heart I asked the doctor, “Is there any hope?” His reply was,” I told you on the first day”. A pause followed and he said grimly, “Bone marrow is not responding”.
It’s the disease of the bone marrow responsible for producing good blood cells. And blood is the main thing to keep the body machine moving. The bad blood cells produced in the bone marrow, will flow to the corpuscles of every tissue and damage the entire body leading to death.
My imagination ran wild; all bad thoughts crowding the mind. With a timid mind overflowing with ominous forebodings I asked the junior doctor, "Is there any hope for continuing the treatment?" He was straightforward and said bluntly, “Hardly any hope of survival, it’s up to you to keep her, here.” I didn’t have any alternative but to endure.
She was given 'Cyterabine' based chemo. In view of her age the oncologist choose five days of induction instead of seven for younger patients. The doctor cautioned us to look out for the following probable side effects.
Lowered resistance to infection on account of low white blood cell counts;
Fatigue due to low red blood cells;
Easy bruising or bleeding due to low platelet counts;
Loss of appetite;
Nausea and vomiting;
Yellowing of the white of eyes;
Spots and rashes on the skin, etc.
Loss of appetite and vomiting appeared first, followed by shivering high fever. Fall of blood counts was usual. Fatigue persisted. Harrowing moments ensued for weeks. She recalls one crucial night spent without a wink of sleep; incidently I too was absent that night; she was alone in the room; the nurses were on toes, every now and then peeping in to see if the drip pouch is empty, replacing it the moment it is dry. One Soka Gokkai enthusiast -- while on visit in the hospital -- gave her a 'mantra'. She kept on reciting the 'mantra' throughout the night and once she sensed some strange aura flooding the room. Agonizing night over, she narrated this when I joined her next morning. I am a hard core atheist and not a bit superstitious. I don't know if it was a good omen. Of course, after about a month the bone marrow began responding to the drug heralding first recovery phase. And we were let off for one week.
Coming back home she resumed to her regular household chores – dusting, cleaning, cooking and everything. She is a cleanliness freak. She was fond of prawns. So, I brought jumbo sized prawns and chicken legs. She barbequed the legs and prepared her favourite Bengali dish “Malaikari” of prawns and gave her palate a good run. But her first choice, raw fruits (uncooked) were forbidden. However, seven days at home were fabulous.
Some other side effects such as yellowing of the white of the eyes, a few spots on the thighs appeared later in the succeeding consolidation courses. The most horrible looking side effect was the total hair loss. Her head turned into a glistening helmet with no hair
The first course is known as induction and all the succeeding ones are consolidation. It is meant for – as the name suggests – consolidation of the previous doses in order to prevent relapse. It is just like compacting the concrete pile by repeated hammering.
After seven days of holiday we came back to hospital routine – the same drip and tablets; hunting for blood donors; collecting blood and platelet; transfusion of blood; dropping of the blood counts followed by recovery phase etc. And, again holidays for seven days: savouring the change and so on. We were in a different sort of routine now. This way we had five consolidation courses in addition to the initial induction. In all the subsequent consolidation phases the bone marrow responded splendidly well. In the final course she was given 'etoposide' instead of 'cyterabine'. The last drug had some strong effect on her and that was the first time she complained of uneasiness. And it was only the once during the long six-month stay in the hospital she said, “I am not o.k.” But it was over soon enough.
She was admitted in the Dharamshila Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Delhi on 2nd June, 2006 and discharged on 30th November, 2006. She is not under any medication since then. She is still alive and kicking.
We tried to analyze the causes of her spectacular recovery. First, all her vital organs were in good health. One of the main causes of bad prognosis after the age of sixty is the worsening condition of various vital organs -- liver, kidney, heart, pancreas etc. With age it degenerates. This is the normal natural process. It can be slowed down to a limited extent but cannot be reversed altogether. With the administration of chemotherapy the condition worsens further, multiplying complications leading to rapid death. Our earlier regimen of regular workouts, good diets, and healthy habits paid rich dividends. To keep the bodily organs in working order is the individual’s responsibility. To live well you have to keep well and it should begin well enough early in life before it is too late. Due to our sheer negligence we allow this degeneration to take place. As a result we pay the price by suffering and death.
The next factor may be of paramount importance. It was the positive mental attitude. From the first day to the last in the hospital she never displayed any negativity. A full throated “Fine” used to be her stock reply to the doctor’s query “How are you?’ every morning. To anybody on phone or otherwise, her reply was always, “I’m ok”, without any exception for a single day. What is more, she even washed her clothes in the hospital. The main complaint was not to be able to consume food. She lost appetite for food mostly.
On the other hand, we saw much younger patients with impaired organs, dying. She witnessed three patients dying next to her bed. Obviously their immune system was weak to fight disease. They become half dead simply by hearing the word “cancer”. This fear psychosis kills them before they are actually dead. We cannot blame them, because it is the common phobia about cancer current among the public: cancer is dangerous; cancer is deadly; cancer is incurable. To maintain a positive frame of mind when you are drowning in the sea of negativity is not an easy task. My wife kept floating under such dire circumstances.
Of course, the way I divulged the news might have cushioned the impact on her mind. To open up to her with the horrific news was a tough job for me. I was in a dilemma to tell or not to tell and how to tell. Against the advice of my relatives, casually I asked her, "Did you know that Suchitra Sen had blood cancer?”
“Yes, I knew. But she got cured.”
“Exactly; blood cancer doesn’t necessarily mean death”
Possibly, it was another factor to keep her confidence buoyant.
Most importantly we appreciate the treatment she received at the hospital. She was under the charge of the renowned oncologist Dr. Praveen Kumar Bansal. He always radiated hope and confidence in his patients. His diagnosis and procedure of treatment were the most vital part of her cure.
We heartily express our profound gratitude to the doctors and staff of the Dharamshila Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, Delhi. And we can’t forget the selfless blood donors coming from Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Faridabad, besides Noida and Delhi. Internet too, was a great boon to us for finding voluntary blood donors.
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