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Henry Jayasena Column - 171 / The Story of a Cancer Patient - Part 12:

Building a New World

Thought of the Week

So another year has come to an end. A very eventful year all over the world the climax of which was the assassination of Benazir Bhuto.

In most countries - especially in our regions, there were devastating floods and earth slips. In other parts of the world there were extensive bush fires and hurricanes.

It looks like the Gods are punishing the world for so much evil. It reminds one of some of the sayings of the Bible. With all that punishment ambitious people don’t seem to let up their selfish ways.

If we look carefully it becomes clear that it is the ambition and selfishness of a few individuals that create all the mayhem in our world. The majority are silent sufferers. Nobody seems to care about even the chagrin of the Gods. The world goes on in chaos with gay abandon.

How would the New Year, 2008, be? Will there be a respite from violence? Would the world leaders realize their folly and play a fairer game? Would the populace be spared the results of their insane antics?

More than anything else I wish that there be PEACE and FAIRPLAY all over the world. Let us hope that the New Year will see the end of Terrorism and Violence in our beloved country.

[email protected]

(Part 170 was published on Dec. 25)

No, my world has not collapsed. My giants are around me. My wife, my son, his wife, the grandson and all those who rallied round me in my hour of need. Even the toy crocodile is my friend. How many lovely stories would we have spun around him? No, my world has NOT crumbled.

That was when I was weak and depressed. When my mind was weak. Now I am strong in my mind although my body is still weak. Yes, I will put all these things down in writing. When I am well enough. I will speak about all my experiences as a patient with one of the most dreaded diseases - CANCER

It is THAT book I am writing now.


Few writers write about their illnesses, about the traumas that they have gone through when they were very ill. I remember reading a book by the title ‘The Plague and I’ - a long time ago, when I was a school boy. It was written by a woman who was stricken with tuberculosis.

How she faced up to the crippling effects and how she managed to come through it alive. [This must have been about 75 years ago, when tuberculosis was not as easily curable as now] I forget the name of the author - it was so long ago.

Much later I remember reading books such as ‘Love Story’ and ‘Some Birds Can’t Fly’. I remember seeing the films too based on these books. At the time I read them I was not ill myself.

But I was very moved reading them and seeing the films. It did not even cross my mind that I might be a patient myself some future day. Yes, we always think that it is the others who will fall victim!

One might say that an illness was a very private thing. Then why write about it? I have thought about this. Then I realise that most writings are inspired by the personal experiences of the writers themselves.

In almost all the literature published in the world so far [except Science Fiction, Thrillers and Detectives] - novels, short stories, poems, plays - we could trace the personal experiences of the writer to a good extent.

Some cover them up with fictitious names and places, often adding their own imagination to such creativity. Most often these personal experiences come through most effectively.

A writer’s childhood or youth are conveyed effectively and nostalgically in works such as How Green was my Valley, Sons and Lovers, The Fate of a Man and Grass for my Feet etc.

Again, love - its partings and pains - the loss of dear ones have inspired some of the greatest poetry that has shaken the souls of more than one generation. GITANJALI by Rabindranath Tagore is one such poignant offering for which he won the Nobel Prize for poetry. Yet, illness - even serious illness has not been a source of inspiration to most writers.

What I have recorded here is mostly factual. I have not tried to present my experiences in a cloak of anonymity. That goes against my grain. So, I have not even changed the names of the doctors who treated me and the nurses who nursed me - but used their names, with their permission of course. I believe that truth is stronger than fiction.

This narrative could be considered meaningless by some who are hale and hearty. To some, it could even be repugnant. Yet, there are a number of reasons that led me to write this.

The first is that I cannot easily forget the care, dedication and the affection of the doctors, nurses, attendants and all the others who treated me, looked after me and more or less saved me from death.

The second reason is that this experience was, to me, traumatic enough to urge me to put it down in writing. The last reason is my sincere belief that it might perhaps be of some solace and encouragement for my fellow beings who are seriously ill - especially with an illness such as cancer.

I wish to tell them, to the best of my ability and with the best intentions, that most cancers CAN be cured if detected early and treated in time.

This is January, 2000, and I am still under treatment. The chemotherapy started approximately seven months ago, in May, 1999. I have to undergo 52 weekly sessions. It could take longer than the actual 52 weeks of the calendar. There could be delays due to a low blood count of platelets, or even low physical condition.

For example, I had a nasty bout of blood diarrhoea in November last year. It happened to be my wife’s Birthday and some present I had for her! On the 23rd night I started passing small quantities of blood. At the outset we thought it was an attack of hemorrhoids - we were rather in the dark since I had no history of hemorrhoids.

I was admitted to Kalubowila hospital once again. The diarrhoea increased and for the first time in my life I could and did use a bed pan! In fact I used so many bed pans that the night nurse, Nilanthi, a nurse I knew from my previous stay in the same ward, was so scared that she called some doctors immediately, to see me.

There is always a funny side in our Ward 23. My wife had sent word to Sanjeewa - our bridegroom to be, in a previous chapter - to be at my bed side. He duly arrived and took up position near my bed. I had taken my walkman to the ward and was listening to some Bhajans - since I felt no pain or major discomfort I did not take the situation very seriously.

We did not know that our Sanjeewa is one of those who cannot see blood without fainting. Or, even if we knew, we had forgotten about it. And so, a couple of bed pans later poor Sanjeewa duly fainted.

And poor Nilanthi had to attend on him too. Once he recovered from the faint I managed to get a Night Attendant to bring a three-wheeler and sent Sanjeewa home, to recuperate.

Meanwhile I noticed a few doctors in the middle of the ward having some sort of conference. Since the next day was surgery day I did not give it much thought. By now I was feeling slightly faintish and dizzy - and thirsty.

I was given some injections. The saline bottle was already there and I think some blood too. Nilanthi was the only nurse in the ward at this time of the night and she was looking pale.

I asked her why. She asked me not to worry, that she had summoned some doctors and also informed Dr. Dayasiri. Only then did I realize that I must be in some serious trouble and then I too felt scared. No not really.

It was much later that I learnt the truth. Being a patient who had undergone some major surgery, and being a cancer patient to boot, the doctors had first thought that my liver might have been affected and hence the bleeding. They must have consulted Dr. Dayasiri and Dr. Balawardhana too.

Anyway, a little later Sudaraka, my son came to keep vigil over me. Fortunately he was not scared of blood. In fact he helped Jayasinghe - the night attendant - to remove some of my soiled clothes and also helped him with the bed pans.

Sudaraka was smiling and telling me little anecdotes from his office and I was greatly relieved. I must have dozed off.

He had been there with me the whole of the night. I had been given about six pints of blood. I was allowed to come home only three or four days later, when my situation was stable.

Up to this day I am not sure what happened that night and what caused the blood flow. Even the doctors were not quite sure. Doctor Dayasiri thought it could have been accumulated blood in the intestines - something called a divesticular problem, which is Greek to me! Some thought it was an infection.

Others thought it was the debilitating effect of the chemo. Whatever it was it had nothing to do with the liver. So I was glad. I could have a drink on that when I was fully recovered!

So, as I said the given duration of time could well vary with the vagaries of your own body. After this I was given a rest of two weeks from the chemo.

It is no problem for me to attend the weekly therapy sessions at Maharagama, since I lived in Nugegoda. Some of the patients travel from distant places such as Polgahawela, Matugama and Galle. A few find friends or relatives living close to Maharagama. Others who can afford it, rent out a room in some house or lodging closeby.

When I realized that some patients travel such long distances by bus or by train for their treatment and travel back the same way, I felt ashamed at the fuss I made at the beginning.

Food was the most difficult thing. Specially rice. The mouth and tongue get rather raw. It is not so much that but the aversion to food that comes with the chemo treatment. I could not take any food even slightly tinged with chilli and other strong condiments.

The food had to be very bland. If only one can eat it! But of course eating by hook or by crook is a MUST. Otherwise you become weak and your blood and platelet levels fall.

This is where Manel comes in. She makes me sit down in a comfortable chair in the hall. Then she brings some rice and specially prepared curries in a small bowl.

To be continued...




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