Hot oil splatters as thick fatty fish slips into the smoking pan, next to boiling rice and simmering garlic greens. Quickly golden, she flips the fillet and turns down the heat. Small feet pound down the stairs, drawn by the crackling aroma, but it’s a mother’s trap; she motions the child to set the table. One by one, the family gathers, as plates and utensils clatter onto the wood and steaming bowls descend. Heads bow, her husband silences all to grace, but soon chatter fills the room as food passes round, plates made full. She smiles at a brief scuffle over the biggest piece. It is the best moment of her life, together, at peace. And they all eat. Except for her. She watches silently, because cancer has taken her throat.
I am never without amazement at the incredible strength it takes for cancer patients to not just be cancer patients. If you told me that I had a life threatening disease and that I needed awful therapy, I am sure I would become the classic “cancer patient,” and crawl into a corner, bath in self-pity, waste away.
So, how do people like my patient, the mother in the kitchen, do it everyday? Think of the bravery and focus it takes her, who has not tasted food or been able to swallow for over two years, to plan, prepare and serve three meals a day for her family. To smell intense odors, see and hear food cooking, and watch as her family consumes each minor feast, all the while only able to satisfy her own hunger by pouring paint colored liquid through a tube which pieces the skin over her stomach.
Moms drop their kids off at school, race to radiation therapy, throw up and than arrive just a few minutes late for PTA. Dads work more than full time, while taking drugs that yield painful gums, 10 bowel movements a day, and make them wilt. Octo-granddads use a walker to attend the infant’s christening, refusing the day’s medicine so they can be alert, and manage a bright smile despite the brilliant pain of a spinal compression fracture. Doctors mend the sick, even as malignant cells eat away their own bodies. Grandmas babysit 20 hours a week, while hands and feet burn with the flame of unrelenting neuropathy. Men and women who give everything for their families, even though their blood work declares they should be in a hospital.
Perhaps, that is what it sometimes means to be a patient, an extension of the sick role. To fight the disease and strive for health, not only in oneself, but in those who depend on you. To use the lessons of one’s own battle, to give comfort. To help others cope with the dread disease, by balancing fear with nurturing routine. In return such giving allows each patient to feel and be of value. Perhaps, but in the end, it is simple. Such men and women are remarkable and are some of the unsung heroes who surround us everyday.
Therefore, here is to every cancer patient, and especially you cancer moms, who sacrifice yourselves to keep your families moving forward. You teach us how to live. You give us courage. You light a path through physical and emotional pain. You show us the complexity, power, focus, and healing of love.
James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds.