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My Father and Helen in Cancerland: Harshal's Story
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By Harshal Mehdi, Special to Everyday Health
“You should hear what my patients say to me.”
These were my dad's words to me, at least once a week, usually at the dinner table. My father, an oncologist, never felt he could adequately express the emotional currents he rode in his office every day. Not that I eve really asked him. It was odd talking to him about his job when the work could be so depressing. If he made an off-hand comment about life in the office, I would nod and then immediately change the subject to basketball. But when I entered medical school at 24, I suddenly felt a need to understand what my father had experienced during his quarter century as a physician. I wanted to know how his patients saw the world, how their perspectives might have changed following their diagnoses. “People say the most remarkable things when faced with the prospect of their own death,” said Dad.
Over the following years, I interviewed nine of my father’s patients and recorded their stories. Helen was the first patient I met. My visit with her would forever influence my understanding of the idiosyncrasies cancer patients face.
Before even stepping onto the frayed welcome mat of her house, I was greeted by a chorus of yelps from Helen’s dogs. The three Chihuahuas were dressed with black and silver Raiders handkerchiefs around their necks. They tried to tackle me as soon as the door was opened. Blue and yellow parakeets chirped their own welcome as I walked into the house.
From what I’ve observed, owning a pet is almost a rite of passage for cancer patients. Despite the fact that more than 13 million people in the country have an invasive malignancy, most cancer patients complain of loneliness. In Cancerland, there are two worlds: Before and After. The terminally-ill often feel a sense of duty to reveal their diagnosis to others, but they simultaneously worry about how the news will alter the dynamic of their relationships. They pine for the world ofBefore, the one of normalcy, but must live in the world ofAfter. A dog, however, has no idea you have cancer and quite frankly doesn't care. He'll lick you and love you all the same, healthy or sick.
The day I met Helen, she was dressed in a grey shawl that accentuated her olive skin and Mediterranean features. She wore a red and gold 49ers bandana tightly wrapped around her scalp. She leaned only slightly onto a walking cane. The stoop didn’t diminish her 5’4 stature; in fact, she looked good.By good I mean it was difficult to tell she had been a patient of my dad’s for the past 13 years, being treated for stage 4 breast cancer. Thirteen years! That’s a long time to live under the sword of Damocles. Perhaps that’s why she seemed so unperturbed discussing various issues, including her mortality.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of our conversation. It’s been years since I talked to her, and I’ve had so many discussions with cancer patients subsequently, the details are blurry.
What I do remember, if vaguely, is that Helen and I chatted about small things mostly: football, dogs, food. When I timidly asked Helen about her grievances, she gave me a thoughtful look. “No, I think the 49ers season is going fine,” she replied with a huge grin. Later she would admit it was the smaller things that bothered her, like not being able to vacuum because of her weakened bones. What I can't forget, however, was Helen’s energy. She threw herself into volunteer work at her local church, proudly showing off the quilts she had made for the homeless, as well as the beanies and scarves she made for other patients at the chemotherapy clinic. But her generosity, of course, was also a reflection of who she was before cancer. As the author James Allen once explained, cancer does not create character, it reveals it.
While interviewing subsequent patients, I was struck by how differently each one approached their own mortality. One woman, who worked as a nurse, resented her treatment and dismissed Western medicine despite seeing how it healed countless patients. Some of the people I interviewed were exceedingly positive despite their serious illness. One man told me he was excited to have cancer because it challenged him to demonstrate the depths of his willpower as he pushed himself physically, even as the chemotherapy regimen diminished his energy. A German veteran soldier from World War II faced cancer with the same determination that had sustained him in combat: his conviction was to fight, regardless of the consequences or his age.
I left Helen’s house naively unconvinced of her mortality. Thirteen years living with cancer and she looked that good? It couldn’t bethatserious.
But soon I learned something else from Helen: Cancer is both the tortoise and the hare. The following week I called to schedule the second interview. Helen asked for a rain check. She was busy with treatments and wanted to wait for her schedule to become less hectic. No problem.
I called the next week. Her husband answered the phone. He told me Helen couldn’t answer because she was under the weather. He suggested I phone the following week.
But no one picked up when I called. Just a normal busy couple, I remembered thinking to myself. And I also wondered if maybe Helen was simply done speaking with me.
Two weeks later I was eating dinner with my parents at an Italian restaurant when my dad received a phone call. He listened for a few seconds, said “ok,” and hung up the phone. “Helen passed away,” he said. Such news wasn’t unexpected. Helen was a normal patient and terminal cancer eventually kills, if paradoxically. It can move at a glacial pace for so long and suddenly accelerate to a lethal speed. Or vice versa. You never really know. My father had had the pleasure of knowing her well over the past decade and a half. Looking at him, I could tell he was shaken up inside. How could he not be? But he knew the limitations of his profession, the realities of terminal illness. He quietly picked up his utensils and stabbed another forkful of chicken ziti.
Harshal Mehdi is a fourth-year medical student at Tufts University School of Medicine. His father, Aminder Mehdi, MD, has been an oncologist for over two decades, and is a founder of Stockton Hematology Oncology Group and chairman of the Department of Oncology at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in California. They are currently writing a book about seven cancer patients.
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