My mother’s ordeal began almost twenty five years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lump in her right breast prompted a biopsy. When the histopathology examination of the breast tissue revealed unmistakable cancerous cells, she was rushed for a radical mastectomy.
In due course the scars had healed, but the passage of time did not alleviate mother’s psychological trauma. It was hard for her to come to terms with the loss of her breast—a symbol of femininity as well as fertility.
Mother stoically suffered through several rounds of aggressive chemo and radiation therapy. Nausea, alteration of taste buds—decrease in taste, abnormal taste, and the consequent lack of appetite took their toll and she lost weight and was reduced to a shadow of her former self.
Notwithstanding her poor health, she did not lose her joie de vivre and continued to be a source of enormous strength and inspiration to her family. She encouraged the celebration of each and every festival, actively participated in pujas and entertained relatives and friends with humorous anecdotes. Even in the weakened state, she braved the boisterous Bangalore traffic to purchase glittering gold trinkets and shimmering silk saris for women in the household, including the cook and maids.
It was almost three years before mother was able to resume routine activities—walking to the Ganesha temple, haggling with the vegetable vendors, and gossiping with friends at the market. Her presence brightened the kitchen, and all the six burners blazed again; she stirred this, sautéed that, drained this, and added spices to a simmering stew. Her activity was as frenzied as a furiously flitting hummingbird. The cook, now relegated to sous chef status, stood by glumly to help the matriarch. Again, the appetizing aromas—curry leaves, coriander, cumin—permeated the house and mouthwatering dishes appeared on the dining table.
In the subsequent years mother patiently endured periodic body scans and blood tests, and when she was pronounced cancer-free, her near and dear rejoiced. In the meantime, she welcomed two grandchildren and played a pivotal role in their upbringing. During this period the family business prospered and my father, at the age of eighty, decided to pass the torch to the younger generation.
Just when he began to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, father passed away. He was fine one day and gone the next. When he woke up one morning with stomach pain, his doctor prescribed an antacid and an analgesic and ordered bed rest. But, by lunch time, when the pain became severe, the patient was rushed to a hospital. He was conscious and knew where he was going. But somewhere along the way, he closed his eyes and appeared to fall asleep. The driver broke all the traffic rules, ran red lights, stop signs and honked his way to the hospital in record time. Alas, it was too late.
Just before father’s first death anniversary rituals—the time when relatives and friends gathered to celebrate his life—mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had to undergo hysterectomy. It was suggested that this particular cancer was a side effect of the prolonged use of Tamoxifen.
An equal opportunity disease, cancer does not discriminate. Male or female, young or old, poor or rich, black or brown, olive or white, it does not matter. One hears of many heart-breaking cases; young mothers hopelessly ill with incurable cancers; adults with inoperable brain tumors; athletes with ovarian or breast cancer; retired folks, looking forward to a carefree life of leisure and travel, diagnosed with lymphoma or leukemia, are forced to spend their meager savings on seemingly endless and exorbitantly expensive treatment regimens, which might, at best, keep them alive for a short while, albeit with a drastically diminished quality of life. The patients slowly begin to shrink, their cheeks sunken with dark circles under their once bright eyes. Some are angry at the world, angry at the nurses, angry at the doctors, and angry even at their own kith and kin.
The next few years went by with more tests and scans. As if mother did not have enough health issues, severe arthritis restricted her mobility. Oral medicines, steroid injections, and knee surgery did not help. The proud lady, however, refused a wheel chair, refused a walker, refused a walking stick, and insisted on walking, without any assistance, from her bedroom to the living room or kitchen. She shuffled her feet with difficulty, and everyone was afraid she might fall.
Lack of mobility lead to diminished appetite. In addition, mother became incontinent. That her brain remained razor sharp was but a poor consolation, and at times she wished to recede into a foggy oblivion.