Terri Clark, the Canadian musician, once said when she saw her mother suffer and die from cancer in 2010:
“When someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them does, too.”
Today, I can completely relate and understand what she meant. I cannot just empathise with her pain, I know that pain.
As a Muslim, it is my belief that this life is only temporary, everyone is born with a return ticket and the real life begins after this temporal one. But when someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is almost like announcing death to them. I still remember the day when her biopsy result came. I remember how cold I became, and how my whole world fell apart in a single moment. And then everyone asked me that I should be the one to break the news to her. I still shudder to recall that moment when I told her she had cancer. And the worst was yet to come. No words can explain the trauma, the fear, and that haunting experience of the last over two years. And to think of our little boy who was not even 5 then, the days and nights just became scarier everyday.
Not many people really understand how cancer is different from other diseases even the terminal ones. And fewer still know what is it like to have a cancer patient in their family. Empathy is a scarce commodity anyway, and it simply doesn’t work in case of cancer patients. One cannot be simply in someone’s shoes and see things from their perspective if they haven’t seen a cancer patient up close. And it is my prayer that no one has to go through what I have gone through. We all have to die, but to see a loved one dying of cancer is too horribly painful to witness. One dies everyday watching a loved one go through inexplicable amount of suffering.
I was no different, although I used to always help people with blood donations and even used to volunteer in medical fundraisers, but I never actually understood how is cancer different from other diseases. I have lost relatives to several serious diseases, to heart failures, to gangrene, to cirrhosis of the liver, to renal failure and even to cancer itself. But, she was the first cancer patient I have seen as a first hand witness every single day. I was there with her with every single turn of the 26 months long battle.
Cancer is not just financially exhausting as the treatments are not completely definitive and are extremely expensive, but it is also emotionally, mentally, and physically torturous. I could not have sustained this fight if we did not have support from multiple people both in the shape of practical and financial help as I accumulated a lot of financial problems in these 26 months among other personal, emotional, family, work and societal problems. Some people even went beyond the call of duty and offered us emotional support as well. I am extremely grateful to all of them. Me and my wife were very blessed to have been surrounded by people who offered helping hands along this most taxing road.
Some of these people who helped me run fundraising and blood donation campaigns for my wife now are asking me to open up further, and to come forward to build something bigger and larger for the benefit of those who are not as blessed as I was in getting help. I know and I have seen many people who are not so blessed. And it falls upon people in the community, the society, and in the government to act on their behalf and to lend help wherever and as much as possible.
Unfortunately, our repetitive governments have traditionally ignored health sector and continually and pathetically fail to deliver the people any tangible development in vitally important social sectors such as education and health. Even in the private sector, the healthcare system is deplorable, ruthless and full of its own version of professional and criminal negligence and corruption. Hundreds of people die every day throughout the country because of the gaps and failures of our healthcare system. I believe everyone of you clearly know what I mean when I talk about gaps and failures of healthcare system even in the private sector because everyone has to see hospitals, doctors and labs for one health problem or another every once in a while.
I, for one, would like to point out a few gaps here as far as cancer treatments are concerned even at purpose-built places like Shaukat Khanum which many believe is “state-of-the-art” and at par with its North American or European counterparts. I would just like to point out three fundamental problems with Shaukat Khanum below which everyone who has been there knows, avoiding going in to details of their professional and operational negligence and lack of coordination, and raise one critical issue every end of life stage patient faces in Pakistan:
- Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre does not treat all types of cancers known to medical science. They only accept patients of a very limited number of cancer types.
- Among the cancer types they treat, they do not accept patients in 3rd or 4th (advanced) stages. They insist that the patient should come to them in the first two phases. Almost all cancers are extremely difficult to treat because they are not “detectable”. Most cancers do not manifest their symptoms unless the malignancy is fairly advanced. If a certain malignancy does not manifest its symptoms before 3rd or 4th stage, how in the world a patient would know if he or she is suffering from this lethal disease? Through dream or magic?
- And if a patient has seen another consultant, they also decline such a patient flatly.
- My wife’s and ours’ greatest challenge came after her second surgery because after it my wife never recovered and remained completely bedridden, helpless and immobile and in pain till the day she passed away within a matter of four months. Her primary consultant team at Hameed Latif Hospital told us that they cannot do anything further and I should not bring her to hospital every now and then. They told me to keep her home and let her die. There is no concept of palliative care, coordinated medical care and end of life medical care in Pakistan. There are no hospice services in Pakistan unlike the UK, the US or Canada. You are simply forced to watch your patient suffer and wait for their tick-tock of life to stop. This is an excruciatingly painful and unbearable period of the patients’ suffering.
I have been thinking about my friends’ advice to do something bigger and something sustainable for patients like my wife. But, my head is still not clear and I am still not out of the trauma of the past two years. However, when my son came home today he told me that his school in Model Town, Lahore, was visited by the team of Cancer Care Hospital & Research Centre; the upcoming new and larger cancer hospital in Lahore. I decided immediately to go and meet its team. I arrived at their office, when I told them that my wife died of Mesothelioma just this last Friday. They took me to meet Dr. Shaharyar; the President and Founder of the project.
It was a long meeting. Dr. Shaharyar emphatically and politely listened to my traumatic experience and the problems I faced and realised in our healthcare system. Later on, I asked him to provide me some material on his project. He made a 10 minutes presentation instead. I found him a humble person who is very passionate about his vision; and the details of the project were impressive. It is 5 times larger than Shaukat Khanum in land area, 4 times in number of purpose built buildings and research facilities, and 3 times larger in treatment capacity. The details of the project can be seen on their page or by visiting them.
The thing that really impressed me was the fact that the project was started by constructing the first building as “Palliative Care Institute” which is one of the most important missing blocks of cancer treatment in Pakistan. The Palliative Care Institute within the Cancer Care Hospital will be operational by December 2016.
Although we still need a high quality and committed hospice service in Pakistan, I immediately decided to offer them my support and assistance. I had some loose cash out of the donations I received from my wife that I used to keep in my pocket just in case of need. I immediately donated the amount to this much needed Cancer Hospital which promises to be completely free for all and to accept cancer patients of all types, categories, stages, and conditions whatsoever.
I urge you all to come forward and provide them your full support, help and assistance either morally, physically by volunteering, or by financial contribution. I am sure all of you will positively take lead in combating this most dreadful of the diseases.