By Sonya Rehman
Barely two weeks ago, my brother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a type of cancer which affects the body’s lymphatic system.
From August onwards, he developed a nagging flu-like cough. A cough he dismissed and refused to take medication for. But on one evening in early October, his cough sounded so severe that he sounded as if he was going to cough up his insides. It sounded frightening. From thereon he went through a series of tests. My family and I were expecting Tuberculosis (TB), we were so sure of it. I’d never even heard of Hodgkin’s till my mother one evening, in private, told me to be prepared for the worst as she briefed me about the disease. I couldn’t accept it. “Mama please, trust me, it’s TB okay? I know it. It’ll take three months and he’ll be out of it, okay?”
The next morning, when the reports came in, we were – to put it mildly – devastated. I was shaking all over, holed up in my room, trying to get myself together as my mother waited to break the news to my brother. I called up two friends. While one bore the brunt of my tears, the other, heard me calmly as I spoke and cried, completely hysterical. The ground had given way from under my feet. I couldn’t breathe. How could this happen? Will he survive this? Will we survive this? The days of denial lasted a week. Even while at Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, walking behind my mother and brother, through the long, brightly lit halls, the noisy waiting areas and the reception desks while we waited for tests and doctors appointments, I was in shock, in utter disbelief. I couldn’t bear looking at my brother. I was falling apart, bit by bit. My strong, strong mother was already in auto-pilot mode. How I wished I could’ve latched onto to something, someone. Curled up in someone’s arms. Why is it taboo to talk about pain and fear? Why is it uncomfortable and awkward to talk about trauma and despair? Why do people turn away when you have that wild, frenzied look in your eyes, wanting, desperately for their warmth and consolation? Why do we internalize our pain? Why do we feel so alone, and why does it feel so crippling? One week into it and I shifted my focus from myself to my mother and brother. Enough with the tears, that’s it, I told myself. I was done with feeling weak. I started to constantly psyche myself into survival and super-hero mode. This disease has nothing on us, I told (and still tell) myself repeatedly.
I’ve started reading up a lot on Hodgkin’s, on cancer as a whole and most importantly on cancer survivors and the importance of a good, healthy attitude. Positivity. Optimism. A quiet acceptance. There’s nothing worse than a bad, pessimistic attitude. And given that I’ve been the Queen of Pessimism for a long, long time, I have felt something within me shift. What? The fragility of life. That life must be embraced – fully – not in a half-baked manner by any means at all. My brother has been so brave through the tests and through his first chemo session. We’re taking it a day at a time and we’re positive. We expect some low days, but we know, fully well, that good days are to follow.
Before I forget, I must tell you that my 33-year-old brother has always been a health nut. Never smoked, never stuffed his face with junk food, and has always, always, worked out – for years – on a daily basis. No joke. I’ve woken up to his music blaring from his room at 5:30am, while he’s done a mix of cardio, weights and his passion: Muay Thai, in his room for over an hour. While he’d be eating clean: protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, I’d be abusing my body by eating filth. The guilt has been very strong within me: through the denial, the guilt has been soul-crushing: why him and why not me? He never deserved this, I did.
IT. SHOULD. HAVE. BEEN. ME.
Shaukat Khanum runs like a well-oiled machine. There are scores of families from every strata of society walking in and out of those hospital doors. Little babies, children, young adults and senior citizens – all of them battling cancer. Looking at them and their caregivers has really helped me you know. It puts things into perspective. Also, it releases the pain. The hurt is no longer internalized. It is freed. We are one with these survivors and their families. We are one with them. And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an empathy like this before: it was never known to me, but now, when I see a cancer patient or his/her caregiver, I can feel them. Really, really feel them. It’s a weird out-of-body experience that I find trouble putting into words, but for that split-second, you actually walk in their shoes and sense them, see them, understand them.
No one is above tragedy, no one. It can happen to anyone. It will happen to everyone. Be prepared. And don’t waste even an iota of time dealing with rage when it happens. Dive into your pain and accept it whole. Let it consume you, find strength in it. You’ll be stronger than you’ve ever known. It is a trial, a test.
My brother is my hero in this journey, he always was. I just never saw it before.